Tales of Fantasy & Horror
Edited by W. H. Horner
Illustrated by David Seidman
Trade Paperback • 6" x 9"
Direct Price: $8.50
Magic surrounds us. It is the stuff of creation. The Enlightenment did not kill it with science, nor did the Industrial Revolution extinguish its usefulness with mechanation. And whether mankind is aware of it or not, this timeless power continues to have a hand in the fate of mortals.
There exists in this world, things that logic and reason cannot explain, and there are beings that have never been captured or catalogued. Elves may feel cramped in the big city, but they can get by. As the wild lands disappear, werewolves may have to be a bit more careful, but they still find time to hunt. And devils and demons still prey upon the souls of the wicked and the unwary.
Come, explore this world of mystery, wonder, danger, and horror. You may find it to be not unlike the world in which you live.
Dark Fantasy /
Horror Short Stories
Trade Paperback • 6" x 9"
ISBN 10: 0-9713608-4-7
ISBN 13: 978-0-9713608-4-6
Table of Contents
“Here be Dragons” by Kelley Armstrong
“Stock Management” by Sarah A. Hoyt
“Kindled Morphogenesis” by Alexa Grave
“Salvation in a Plastic Bag” by P. Kirby
“Joy, Unbottled” by Ron Horsley
“Souls of Living Wood” by Eugie Foster
“Peter I am Lost” by Kelly Hale
“Zaubererkrieg” by Stephen D. Rogers
“The Apprentice” by Joy Marchand
“Office Magic” by Jon Sprunk
“Raven” by Elaine Cunningham
“Beauty, Sleeping” by Melissa Frederick
“Unsung Hero” by Michael A. Pignatella
“Swan Dive” by Christe M. Callabro
“Feast of Clowns” by Robert Guffey
“Subversion Clause” by Richard Parks
“Love’s Consequence” by Rhonda Mason
“The Healer’s Line” by Jill Knowles
“The Lamia” by James S. Dorr
“Midnight Snack” by Kenneth Brady
“Pavlov’s Breast” by Steve Verge
“Golden Rule” by Donna Munro
“Wishbone” by Erin MacKay
“No Worries, Partner” by Jim C. Hines
“Pentacle on His Forehead, Lizard on His Breath” by James Maxey
“Undead Air” by John Passarella
“The Woman Who Walked With Dogs” by Mary Rosenblum
“Envisioning a darker version of today’s world, the 26 authors present tales of the fae . . . wizards . . . and other supernatural denizens of the modern era. This strong and often graphic collection belongs in most horror or short story collections.”
—Library Journal, April 15, 2006
“It’s hard to pick clear favorites in an anthology that has so many good stories to choose from.”
“Modern Magic puts the classic traditions of fantasy and magic onto the street, in your neighborhood, down the block. This collection of stories brings home the usual cast of bugbears and spooks, along with some unexpected characters, from fresh voices and old friends alike. Step inside the living room, don’t mind the garlic-baited bear traps, and read a spell.”
—Jay Lake, 2004 Campbell Award Winner
“Modern Magic is a wonderful anthology of bright, inventive fiction, complimented by great art work that would do any art show proud. Stephen King tells us that writing is telepathy, and I was there in the magical realms with the authors—from Sarah A. Hoyt’s magical prelude, “Stock Management” to the gonzo zombie attitude of Jack Passarella’s “Undead Air.” Mary Rosenblum (“The Woman Who Walked with Dogs”) does not have to tell me twice to be in my house by dark.”
—Nancy Holder, co-editor, Outsiders
“Modern Magic is an entertaining—and at times, downright frightening—journey down the strange alleyways of the fantastic. The writers collected here take magic in refreshingly fun and remarkably clever directions, reminding us that reality is never as simple or safe as we assume it is. The sheer range of tales collected here is indescribably rich. Reading this book is like discovering a secret cellar in your basement, filled with mysterious unmarked bottles curdling with odd and vibrant colors. Every tale contains a delightful surprise that you will uncork with both joy and trepidation at what you are about to unleash. But you’ll chug your way through each of them with reckless abandon. What a knockout collection!”
—Michael Arnzen, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of 100 Jolts and Play Dead
Oh, you saw the scene in that hotel as well as I did.
No, maybe you saw it better since I was busy fighting with all my might, with open mouth and flashing tooth and furled wings. . . .
But do you remember what you saw?
You don’t think so.
Your little ape-brain, working in the way your ancestors learned when they peeked out of their dark caves and saw something that defied their reason—your little ape-brain, I say, has erased all traces of what you saw.
You and your trained investigators will have collected charred bodies, and bitten bodies and bloodless bodies, and people in inexplicable comatose states.
Yet you’re treating this as a typical gangland killing.
Oh, you lean back and snicker at me, your best mocking ape-laughter, exposing those ridiculous stubby teeth of yours that are not good for chewing anything except cooked meat, and you tell me, “Try me, just try me.”
Oh. I’ll try you all right, because otherwise they will win and if they do—
What did you scribble on that pad? Paranoid delusions?
The paranoid part is true, I suppose. I do feel I’m being persecuted. So would you. So should you, because both of us are being chased down a blind alley—herded into death. Both of us and humanity, besides.
But the only deluded ones are you and your kind, thinking you’re safe, and the night terrors banished forever, even while they control your every move.
Two visions scorched Fiona’s mind: the horror before her eyes and the flames smoldering in her psyche. She dropped her house keys, and they clattered on the linoleum.
Fiona cried out, falling to her knees. Dailon had told her to leave for the afternoon, so she had gone on a hike in the woods near their house. Now, she came back to this. Her elven lover’s eyes stared up at the ceiling.
She dug her hands into her hair and yanked. A few strawberry-blonde strands came away with her fingers, and she stared at them. They flamed with the flashes in her mind. She disregarded the image and crawled across the kitchen floor.
“Dailon, wake up.” Fiona shook him, but he didn’t move, didn’t react to her touch. Instead, residual magic clung to Fiona’s skin. It inched up her arms and threatened to strangle her with its potency.
She jumped back. Dailon had taught her to sense magic, but she had never felt anything so wicked before. Fiona caressed his cheek, smooth and cold, allowing the residual magic to weave around her. She read into the power that killed Dailon, and it assaulted her senses.
Two other elves did this.
The image in her mind overlaid that of Dailon’s body; flames engulfed her, but they didn’t burn. Fiona failed to comprehend where the fire sprang from, and why it ignited now. If it was part of the memories she had searched for so long, she wanted nothing to do with it. Dailon mattered now, not this conflagration in her brain.
She stroked Dailon’s pointed ear. His lifeless body and the flames melded into one otherworldly picture. He lay on a pyre, his body surrounded by flickering orange, refusing to be consumed.
Fiona shouldn’t have listened to Dailon, or she should have at least questioned why he wanted her out of the house. The peaceful walk she had had in the woods felt tainted. While she had relaxed and embraced the world around her, Dailon died.
She flung herself over him. Dailon had stood at her side for five years. He had found her and given her memories to replace those she had lost.
There had to be a reason for this, and she intended to find it. The magical residue tugged at Fiona. She memorized the intricacy of both strands and knew she could track whoever did this. Dailon had taught her well.
She would hunt down the elves who killed her lover and kindled the fire.
If he had to do the killing, drive the bolt through their big thick heads, he would never eat beef. At home he rarely ate meat; at home he was expected to hunt. But here, meat came in neat packages, a once-living critter sliced, diced, and wrapped in plastic and Styrofoam.
Or in this case, folded inside a warm corn tortilla. Talis angled the taco sideways and bit down through tortilla, lettuce, cheese, and spicy shredded beef. He chewed, watching the restaurant’s doorway and the dark street beyond. He was midway through his second plate, beef burritos, when Breas finally showed up.
“Talis,” the vampire said. Even as he sat down, his gray eyes continued to roam the restaurant. A consummate practitioner of the art of survival, Breas Montrose took his immortality seriously.
“Hey, Montrose,” Talis said.
“Hey, yourself.” Breas’s gaze fell on the empty plate. “You got some kind of Fey tapeworm?”
Talis shrugged and swooped up a forkful of rice. Better than any fad diet, his habit worked like Teflon, keeping any weight from sticking to his tall frame. A friend had once described him as a chocolate-covered skeleton.
The waiter returned and filled his water glass. “Gracias,” Talis said. The waiter nodded and moved on, seeing only a thin, dark-complexioned human.
With his rich brown skin, sky-blue canted eyes, soot-black hair and pointed ears, Talis was anything but human. A cloaking glamour kept his true features hidden from human eyes.
Breas glanced at his watch. “You done? We’re supposed to be across town in twenty minutes.”
“Yeah, I—” Talis stopped, his mouth open. Across the room, in a short hallway that opened to the kitchen, the waiter stood talking to a busboy. As Talis watched, the waiter’s olive complexion faded and bruises bled across his face, dark irregular islands on a sea of dead gray skin. Behind the man, the restaurant dissolved and was replaced by—
Talis had fumbled blindly, found a fork, and driven the tines into his thumb, banishing the portentous vision. Haloed by yellow light that poured from the kitchen, the waiter laughed, hearty and hale.
“I, uh, gotta run to the restroom,” Talis said, ignoring the look of disgust on the vampire’s face.
A few minutes later he emerged from the restaurant, finding Breas waiting in the parking lot.
“You’re still using, aren’t you?” Breas asked.
“Why do you ask, if you already know the answer?” Talis said.
“Stupid kid,” the vampire muttered. “That crap won’t cure whatever ails you.” Without a glance at Talis, he turned and walked toward a parking lot next to the building.
Talis shivered, the drug trickling though his nervous system. “I know,” he said.
The washtub was an immense, chipped, bone-white affair. The weight of it had buried it to the hilt of its lion-claw feet. It held a good fifty or sixty gallons of water, and had been set with its head against the wall of the garage where it would have sat underneath the mouth of a faucet in a bathroom.
It looked bad; the water dark and dirty. Frog territory, maybe even a snake or two. I could hear a thin, reedy noise of crickets ratcheting up a squall in the trees.
Just another part of the motif known as Americana Backwoods Refuse, alongside such famous pieces as Rusted Kid’s Tricycle in the Yard and Corvette Up on Blocks.
A few thin ropes of weed twined up the sides, clinging to the unsanded edges with a horticultural tenacity that outlasted many hot summers, but other than that the tub was untouched. In the cool of the late dusk I smelled the fibrous scent of cut grass and honeysuckle.
The washtub was light blue in the twilight. The water was black with a thin scum of freshly-flung grassblades spotting it like a strangely unraveled sweater’s weaving; a flat mat that slowly revolved in the dark.
A sigh . . . a brush of lips. . . .
“. . . boy?”
A kissing sound in the air, the slight hiss that made the word. The smell of honeysuckle blossoms became cloying, like trying to breathe deep in the perfume section of a busy department store. . . .
I held my breath . . . and a breath was taken for me.
A dead rabbit—its fur matted and soaking—lay just a few feet away from the sunken claw feet of the tub. One eyeless socket regarded me with horrific placidity, as if it were calmly waiting for me to leave so it could continue on its hopping way. There were no flies that I could see, which should have been swarming given the warmth and shade afforded to the corpse near the base of the tub. Yet it was clearly picked-over—dirt smeared parts of its body that had been exposed, ripped, and laid bare like the work of a butcher’s bad apprentice.
“. . . come, boy . . . come and dip your toes . . .”
The voice was coming from the washtub.
If I had thought I was crazy, if I thought it was a trick of my mind that I’d heard anything, it was stopped when I saw the grass blades on the surface of the water twitching in time to the sounds of that voice.
A treebranch sawed against another. The breeze was dank and faint like the pleasant smell of a cellar come up through a thrust-open kitchen door . . . dark yet inviting . . . it blew through the yard, making me shiver.
Yes. A warm place, wet and refreshing . . . springs in the mountain and valleys with cascading falls. . . .
I could see those places.
Aria realized she was grinding her teeth behind her smile and forced the muscles in her jaw to relax. No. This was not going to work out. These people would leech out every bit of soul and beauty from this stately, old house, leaving behind a traumatized, fragmented psyche. Already, she heard the gentle bewilderment in the house’s voice. They didn’t like it the way it was? They were going to splash garish color on it and tear down walls to string electrical arteries through it? Why?
Not to worry, Aria reassured the house. These people will be leaving soon. I’ll find you a family that won’t try to change you, to destroy what you are.
“I believe you wanted to see the pool?” she said. She ushered the Bellingers through the family room and the kitchen, and pulled open the French doors that led to the back. This area was of a newer era than the rest of the house; the pool added in a time of whimsy and good fortune. Even so, the previous owners had taken care to blend the edges of the pool in with the existing backdrop, creating a miniature tiered waterfall in the far corner as a segue from the rowan trees that clustered in a tiny forest at the back of the lot.
The sun hung like a molten coin in the sky, spreading rays of white gold, topaz, and tawny fire over the still water.
“It’s gorgeous!” Mrs. Bellinger said.
“Why don’t I let you all wander around back here, folks?” Aria suggested. “I’ve got to check in with my office. I’ll be right with you.”
The Bellingers ignored her as she retreated into the house.
I’m so lonesome, the house murmured. Maybe I won’t mind the changes. Maybe it’s better this way.
“No.” Aria spoke firmly. “You deserve someone who appreciates you for who you are, who doesn’t want to change you because of some fad. You deserve someone who will take care of you, not ruin you, someone who sees how beautiful you have been, are, and always will be. You deserve people that love you.”
I had a family like that, once, the house whispered. They’re gone now.
Aria ached for its grief. But down that path lay ruin. As she well knew, a despairing house was a dead house—nothing but rubble and dilapidation.
Boy. Spotted earlier outside Peet’s Coffee. Trickling a packet of sugar into the foam of his latte.
Oh, the darling pointy shape of his ears. Ropes of hair smoothed back beneath a sheen of candy-apple red. I almost stop to ask him where oh where did he get his hair, but am swept past his table on my way to an altogether different destiny. A movie or something. Then, later, coming back, waiting for the crossing light, I hear, “Wendy is that you?” Not my name, but I pretend for a moment so I can say, oh hi, how’ve you been? He looks hard at my face. I say, no, ha ha, I’m not her; I just wanted to meet you. His eyes go up and down all over me. But not in the way guys usually do. Weird. Different. “It is you,” he says with delicious, mad certainty. “Sit. I’ll buy you a coffee.” I sit. He buys. We talk.
Up close his hair looks like Medusa’s serpents tamed by styling mousse, errant heads and tails snipped into a blunt line at the nape of his neck. And something even stranger than the hair keeps distracting me from the flirty precursors of our inevitable boinking, something the reptile nubbin in my brain stem notes instantly, though my eyes sidle away from the impossibility as we converse. The afternoon crowds flow around our table. I’m caught. I’m held. I am at the absolute center of his attention, so damned charming he thinks, so like this someone he once knew. I feel compelled to be her just to make him laugh. As he laughs, his teeth seem too small for his mouth—too perfect, pearly, and a little too sharp.
“So, Wendy . . .” he says, and the name is a game we’re playing together now. I wet my lips. Do the sultry thing with my hair. He leans across the table, close as a whisper, distant as the sun shining hot on my face. “Do you still have it? Because I really need it.”
Mmmm. Mad, yes. Exotic. Strange. There will be dangerous games of trust and betrayal I think. Led blindfolded by this strange boy through a maze that winds upward.
The words followed Michael as he charged down the hall with long, measured strides. Out of the office pool, he made a left and turned into a broad, well-lit atrium. Only one elevator went all the way to the top. Its doors were flanked by a pair of security guards in navy blue uniforms. They eyed Michael’s approach. He twirled his pencil and they blinked. He walked right past them, hit the button, and stepped through when the doors opened. The guards didn’t move.
Michael hummed an old television super-hero theme song as he pressed the button for the top floor. The elevator began to rise.
He was doing it. He was on his way to see the Old Man. When he got there, he would march right in and demand Vince’s reinstatement. It was a bold move, so unlike his normal self. The impetus was a heady drug.
The elevator car ground to a halt between the sixth and seventh floors. The overhead light sputtered and went out, plunging Michael into darkness. He waited for a moment. And then another. And then the realization sunk in. They were trying to stop him. He had gotten past the outer defenses and now they were upping the ante. Michael had no doubt that more security guards were on their way with crowbars and handcuffs. They would be ready for any tricks.
Michael twirled his pencil in the dark. A thought came to him. He found the control panel. His questing fingers located a small hole beneath the rows of raised buttons. The emergency keyhole. He stuck the tip of his pencil inside.
The lights flickered back to life. The car resumed its journey upward through the innards of the office building. He was back on track.
The branches were black with birds—big, sleek, glossy birds that scooted down along the limbs as they made room for the newcomers winging their way in from God-only-knows where.
Just then Frankie looked over to my window, and even from this distance I could feel her eyes on mine. There was something in them that made me begin to understand why the ravens came to her call.
A long moment of indecision passed. Obviously there was something to what she said; otherwise, how’d she manage to recruit all these birds? On the other hand, it looked like a scene from a Hitchcock movie out there, and if my memory was holding up, that movie didn’t end real well.
Then something changed in the air around me. There was this electricity in it, like the supercharged, super-still feel the air has just before lightning strikes. The bedroom was still fairly dark, and things not yet visible began to rustle and whisper in the shadows.
Suddenly one middle-aged Polish-American witch and a couple hundred ravens seemed like a much better bargain than whatever was stirring inside the house.
Rose lay motionless on the guest bed, just as Trudi had arranged her: hands folded, blankets snug under the elbows, head propped and tilted 45 degrees to the left, in case she vomited. Every candle Trudi could get her hands on stood watch around the room—a flickering chorus of heights, widths and perfumes. It was the closest she could come to a room of prayer. She had no vials of holy water and didn’t keep incense around the house since the smoke bothered her eyes. Candlelight had dissolved Rose’s acne and chicken pox scars so that her face looked more than ever like a porcelain egg nestled in red curls. Too perfect for this world. The only detail that disrupted the scene was the shadow cast by Trudi’s rifle, a dark gash across one eyebrow and part of the forehead. Trudi reached over to where the gun leaned, shifted the barrel, and continued to admire.
This shouldn’t have been necessary, Trudi sighed and twirled the syringe between two fingers. If any one of five people had listened, but then, no one ever listens to the witch. Her kind were a marginalized group back in the days when the Brothers Grimm had Cinderella’s stepsisters lopping off chunks of their feet to fit into the glass slipper. It occurred to Trudi that she should consider destroying the syringe somehow—by flushing it down the toilet, maybe—since it was evidence against her, and fairly damaging at that. But she didn’t seem to have the energy. On the opposite wall, the needle distended into a cigarette holder, sleek and black, the kind they used to smoke in a good rich man’s tragedy, a Fitzgerald novel. The willowy heroine, eyes bright as her sequined flapper dress, slips the stem between her teeth and manages to inhale before one wide hand encloses her neck and snaps it. Earrings shift, her head dangles like an apple. It didn’t take Trudi long to figure out that this debutante was a mirror image of Rose.
Trudi shuddered, releasing herself from her vision. Blood buzzed through her cheeks, a sure sign she needed to get to her tea leaves. First, though, Rose deserved an explanation. “Don’t be afraid, now, sweetheart. You’re with me, and I always told you I’d keep you safe and sound.” She shifted on the comforter and watched Rose’s lids for any sign of recognition. “You’re still in the Cristiana, in case you were wondering, and you’re going to stay here for as long as I can fend off the world. It could only be for a few hours, but that might be as long as I need to set your future straight. And him. I told you darling, I told you that boy would be the death of you.”
Then Ian felt evil, hot and fierce, emanate from the podium, and the vision flashed to a small explosive device concealed within the structure of the podium itself. Time slowed as the podium exploded in a fury of flame and splintered wood, the microphone burying itself in the congressman’s chest. Shrapnel littered the front two rows, raining spectators with bullet-like shards of wood and the hot breath of the explosion. One of the bodyguards, his face burned and melted in a disquieting mask of agony, crawled toward the congressman’s body before shuddering in one last gasp of duty. Ian’s perspective widened and he watched the crowd stampede toward the exit, an avalanche of panic. That panic would transform into a thirst for vengeance that would set America on fire.
Once again a sudden change in perception made him queasy. He was back in the van, peering from the eyes of its foul owner, who was donning a pair of stained leather gloves. Ian noted the time on the man’s watch—5:09 p.m.—and his heart sank. Almost exactly the same time as the assassination attempt.
The man opened the van door, and a hard knot of fear lodged in Ian’s throat. He was outside his family’s home, the familiar Cape Cod that was the center of Ian’s spiritual universe, where Tommy was putting the finishing touches on the snowman Ian had watched his family building hours earlier. Dusk had settled and, combined with the heavily falling snow, it rendered the two shapes mere silhouettes—one slight and carefree, the other ponderous with the weight of his malevolent intentions. The man approached Tommy and began to talk, weaving a web that had undoubtedly snared other children.
I love to dance. Don’t believe it when they say all I do is sit on my throne and laugh at the poor souls clawing at my feet with charred hands and broken, blackened nails. Nor do I stand behind stupid mortals all day and whisper temptations in their ears. Don’t get me wrong; it is quite enjoyable. But ninety-five percent of the inhabitants of my quaint little kingdom end up there on their own. And the other five percent aren’t usually worth my time anyway.
So what’s a devil to do, when these delectable past-times sour in my mouth? I thrive on constant amusement. And dancing never bores me.
It reminds me of flying.
I enjoy ballet the most. Surprised? Don’t be. I could watch those doomed, graceful creatures all day, in their satin and tulle, leaping and twirling like leaves in a brisk autumn breeze. Most of them never realize how close they come to belonging to me. Dancers, especially ballerinas, sell their souls to their companies and their art. They pay a heavy price for a hard dream, just to perform for the throng that lusts for their delicate beauty and eats up their sweat-soaked glory. I can’t think of a better Saturday night than dressing to the nines and catching the newest production of this or that. It gives me a chance to show off.
Occasionally, a young girl catches my eye, a fragile flower with too much ambition and fate against her the whole way. I can instantly see it in the trembling line of the arm, the spark of anger deep in the pupil. Those are the girls I love best. I don’t own very many; you’d be amazed how many actually turn me down. The few I do possess delight me so much more than the other souls I’ve personally collected. How do you think the flames in Hell dance with such allure?
“Learning magick is easier than making people laugh?”
“Sure. All you have to do is read a few books.” He gestured nonchalantly at the towering piles as if there were only a few dozen books in the room.
“Making people laugh takes something else altogether.”
“Like what?” Eliphas leaned forward expectantly.
The fakir sighed. He opened a coverless black book and read from it aloud. “‘The Path of the Fool is the secret extension of the Path of the Tower.’ Those are the words of a man named Kenneth Grant, former member of Ordo Templi Orientis and founder of the Nu-Isis Lodge.”
“What did he mean?”
The fakir held up his index finger. He pulled out a different book and read aloud once more. “‘The clown is so close to death that only a knife-edge separates him from it, and sometimes he goes over the border, but always he returns again.’” The fakir nodded, shut the book, then remained silent for an interminable amount of time.
“Who said that, another one of your magicians?”
“Sort of. It was Charlie Chaplin.”
Eliphas waved his hands impatiently. “Yeah? So what does it mean?”
An orange tabby leaped on the fakir’s lap, and proceeded to make a bed on his silver robe. The fakir stroked the cat’s fur as he said, “It means . . . you’ll have to get over your fear of death.”
It was Ahazat’s first day on the job as a procurement specialist. A little confusion could, perhaps, be understood. He looked at the white-robed young lady standing just outside the perfectly calligraphed mystic pentagram and frowned.
“I didn’t quite catch that.”
She smiled at him. “I said: I want you to subvert my present expectations.”
Ahazat stared at her. “That’s what I thought you said.”
So much for orientation. It was simple, they said—Mortals want things. Silly things, usually, but they want them and they’re willing to trade their precious immortal souls. Usually for some very minor magical service. Eternal youth was popular, as was beauty, but there was always a catch that allowed the buyer—Hell—to collect. They knew all the tricks, they said, all the various dodges that mortals had tried over the years. Just call if you get into trouble. Ahazat decided to do just that.
“Just a sec . . . what’s your name, anyway?”
“Thanks. Just a moment, Martha. I need to check with the home office.” Ahazat pulled out his hellphone.
“That looks like a cellphone,” Martha said.
“Show me a cellphone that can reach the Infernal Regions,” Ahazat said. “Most of them can’t call out of the Holland Tunnel. Can you give me a little space here?”
Ahazat, being conjured, couldn’t leave the middle of the pentagram. Martha politely stepped back out of immediate earshot and Ahazat pressed *H. In a few moments he got a response.
Ahazat recognized the voice. Matkalak. Just his luck.
“Listen, I’ve got an odd one here . . .” Ahazat explained the mortal’s question. Matkalak just hmmmed in a way that wasn’t very helpful at all. Ahazat heard the click of a keyboard, then a very long and empty pause.
“There’s nothing in the database,” Matkalak said.
Ahazat blinked. “I thought that wasn’t possible.”
“So did I. I’ll make a note. You will report your result, won’t you? We need to keep the records up to date.”
“To Bliss with that! I need to know what to do!”
“You’re the field operative,” Matkalak replied, totally unmoved. “It’s your discretion. . . . And your ass, by the way. So logged. Bye.”
Raine peeled herself out of bed. She smiled at the sight of her torn garter belt and corset on the floor. She’d thought Aryntir would like them—and he had. Which meant they were unwearable now. Just as quick as the smile came the tears, and the bittersweet lump that rose in her throat. Raine slumped to the floor as the room blurred.
Why did it happen like this?
It was too much coincidence to stomach.
She lowered her head to her knees and sobbed. Cried for all the ‘what-ifs’ that could never be, cried for her sister’s torment. Her sobs turned to screams of rage as she pictured Goran sitting across the table from her at Olin’s. He knew. He had to. He set the whole thing up. She screamed her throat raw while tears burned her eyes. As if anger alone could stop the relentless flow of time, the inevitability of events.
There had to be a way. Had to.
At last she quieted.
Even memories of Aryntir’s whispered words of love were no comfort now. He loved her. And she would betray him. She knew that with certainty.
It was her fault her sister had been captured by Goran in the first place. If Raine had accepted his last offer, none of this would have happened. Sunne never would have suffered. It would be Raine writhing in the flames, and she’d never have to feel the pain of betraying her only love.
She hugged her knees to her chest and wished for the past to change. For the present to change. For anything to change. She wished for death. Wished a god she’d never respected would strike her dead, so she wouldn’t have to choose between Aryntir and her twin sister.
This was her punishment.
She knew that now.
Frankie felt his mouth go dry. The Were Clans and the Healer’s Guild were ancient enemies. They had, in fact, hated each other for so long that the cause of the original rift had been lost in time. No healer could go into a Were Clan household and expect to emerge alive.
A thin, dark-haired man stepped forward, toying with the heavy gold bracelet around his wrist. “I’m a Seer. All of my Clan claim that gift. My mate is heavy with child. Without a Guild Healer, she will die. I have seen it.”
Frankie felt the caged power and impatience radiating from the other man. You’re in trouble Frankie, lad, he thought, there’s no way you can back away from this and maintain your integrity.
“And what assurances have we that our Healer will be returned unharmed?” Bee Balm asked.
The Coyote Alpha shrugged. “If no one kills him, he will be returned unharmed.”
“Healer Casswell? Your decision?” The Senior Councilor’s face was expressionless. Only her eyes betrayed malicious glee.
He was well and truly trapped. Pasting his most salacious grin on his face, he said, “Why Senior Councilor Bee Balm, you sweetheart, how’d you know I was just aching for a challenge?”
Shock and triumph warred on her face. Triumph won. She extended a hand to him, saying, “Good healing, Frankie.” The “and good riddance” was unspoken.
Undaunted, he brushed his lips across her knuckles. “Why thank you, Senior Councilor. Your good wishes mean everything to me.” He allowed himself to savor her discomfort for a moment before turning to the Coyote Alpha. “When will she go into labor?”
A distant look on his face, the other man said, “Two hours ago.”
“We’d best be going, then,” Frankie said before he could chicken out.
Julia caught him as they were leaving the Council chambers. “What are you doing? Are you crazy?”
He clasped her hand. “If I go, I might die. If I don’t, she will die.” He squeezed her hand and followed his client from the building.
Belinda disgusted him, yet at the same time he lusted for her, whipsawed back and forth much like a snake himself, facing a snake charmer. Realizing also that she was no true serpent, not anatomically, but all too human—all too much the seductive houri as she lay within his arms, legs coiled about him, and yet with her flesh at night still exuding what seemed to him a peculiar coolness.
As if she were cold-blooded. Which, as he knew, she was metaphorically, but only—only, he prayed—metaphorically.
But then he realized one more truth about her.
He knew already she was a metaphorical vampire. She sucked the creativeness from his soul, transforming it into something of her own which she presented to their project leader. Letting him have credit too, for now, though always with her stamp. Physically she remained fresh, young, sprightly, while, day by day, he looked and felt older.
He asked her once. He showed her a gray hair. She laughed, a tinkling laugh, saying between breaths, “Matthew, Matthew, am I too much for you? Do I make you older?”
Older, yes, he thought. He nearly answered her. Older and weaker.
But then she smiled her little smile, with just a tiny pout, showing her pointed teeth. “Or is it only that I make you wiser?”
And then he remembered. The Serpent in the Tree—that of Knowledge of Good and Evil. That which the beggar had tried to warn him of. Snakes could be arboreal, including members of some of the most dangerous of the snake families—cobras—boas—but there were others, too. Lamias—Lilith—the first wife of Adam. She who abandoned man for Satan and became a serpent too, half-reptile, half-woman.
And then her sisters—the Greeks knew of them. Lamiae, as they were called in Latin, who sucked out the youth from the souls of their boy-lovers. Succubi as they were later known in the Middle Ages.
And there were more than just one.
This he learned also. The Tree of Knowledge—the memory of it, of having read of it in the beggar’s Book—reminded him once again of his quest: as Matthew, to seek truth, exposing false knowledge. He considered, momentarily, that he might be going mad. But then, that night, in Belinda’s arms—they long since had altered their nights together, planning ahead for a change of clothes, an overnight suitcase, so he could lie with her until it was morning—he had to get up to pee. Turning the light on, he glanced at her eyes, and saw they were open. Not blinking, not even seeing—he waved a hand in front of her face and they did not track it—but just staring, open.
The monster was not hiding in its usual corner when Morris walked through the living room to get his midnight snack. He tightened his grip on his baseball bat. Nothing put him in a worse mood than having to look for the monster, and he knew things were not going to go smoothly tonight.
“Where the hell are you?” Morris whispered. He didn’t want to wake his wife. In ten years, she had only awoken once during his evening foray to the kitchen. Three years had passed, and she still wouldn’t go near the dishwasher. The monster’s fault, not his. The only thing that annoyed Morris more than having to look for the monster was having to do dishes. For the last three years, he’d done them every night.
Morris crept around in the near-darkness of the living room. He squinted, trying to use the light that filtered through the curtains from the front porch to his advantage. He reached under the sofa, and came up with a long-lost issue of Field & Stream, but nothing else. No monster.
“This is not helping the situation,” he said.
He poked his head into the fireplace, and glanced up into the darkness of the chimney. Nothing. Then he heard footsteps. Or, maybe the padding of heavy paws on linoleum. He pulled out of the fireplace and jog-walked into the kitchen.
It was completely dark.
Morris reached for the light switch, then thought better of it. The monster would be expecting that. It loved attacking light. Best case scenario, it would dive at him the moment the circuit closed, right as the light dazzled his eyes. Worst case, it would be in the light bulb, and closing the circuit would splatter entrails throughout the kitchen. He didn’t want to clean up that kind of mess ever again. Besides, the noise would surely wake Kathi, he wouldn’t get his snack, and he’d have to cook up an explanation. He was too tired for that.
Not to mention hungry.
Here it is, Mommy thought, if you are normal, you will open the pack and fix whatever is leaking. Please be normal.
Zach’s eyes shifted to Junior and back to the pack. He picked up Sissy’s fleece blanket and began frantically wiping at the wet corner. The blanket absorbed the liquid in a widening stain.
“Junior,” Mommy said, hoping to find some control of the situation before it turned, “it isn’t polite to stare.”
“Yeah mom, but his—”
“What did I just say?”
“No buts, mister. Now say you’re sorry,” Mommy demanded, hardening her voice to cut off his protests.
Junior tore his gaze away from the backpack and found his mother’s. “I’m sorry.”
“Not to me, to Zach.”
Junior turned and whispered his apology to the stony-faced young man still swabbing the bottom of the backpack with the blanket. Mommy was glad that Sissy was so involved in her music, because she would be the first to react emotionally to the tension that was rising between Junior and the guest.
“Daddy was right,” Junior said, almost under his breath.
“Not another word, young man,” Mommy said, struggling to keep the ‘I am not amused’ mom face firmly planted over the face that threatened to break through—the ‘I’m scared shitless’ face.
Junior, with the courage only a ten year old can muster, stuck his tongue out at Zack and returned to his book. The young man smiled a feral grin and turned his attention back to his leaky pack.
Sissy’s CD stopped spinning and she leaned down to retrieve another.
“Look lady,” Zach said as he continued to wipe the pack slowly, “you are going to keep driving. You are going to drive me to Chicago or I will have to hurt your children. I may hurt them a little anyway, but if you do what I say, I may let you live.”
Wishing worked, if you did it right. She wished for the way things had been before, she wished to have him back alive and whole and just as he had been on the day before he died. With every heartbeat, with every inhalation and exhalation, every sip of coffee and letter to the editor, with every blind courtesy copy, every peel plastic back at corner to vent during cooking, she wished.
She wished on stray eyelashes and on her necklace clasp when it worked its way around to the front. She crossed her fingers so much she did it unconsciously, and at the firm’s Thanksgiving potluck she pushed the managing partner’s secretary out of the way so she could be the one to pull the wishbone. At night, she stood outside in the cold to wish on the evening star.
Days passed, then weeks, with no result. Maybe death was too much for the simple home remedy of wishing. After all, a lot of things needed undoing to bring him back, alive and whole and just as he had been on the day before he died. Sharon finally admitted that this was beyond grammar school magicks. She needed a professional.
“Don’t give me no lip, boy.” He grabbed my tie and smiled. “Else I’ll slice the lips right off your face and feed ‘em to my pets back home.”
His companion never spoke. I could barely see his face, but the glimpse I got when I craned my neck revealed a man who appeared almost as uncomfortable as I felt. Could it be that Flame wasn’t that popular even in his own gang? Who could blame them, really? The man talked to ghosts and walked around with dead animals hanging off of his jacket.
“You cowboys are so damn stubborn,” Flame said. He ripped the wrapper off of a Kit Kat and jammed the first piece into his mouth. “Blue Devils never forget an insult. You people didn’t even apologize for pushing us off of our turf.”
“I wasn’t here when that happened,” I snapped. Then, either because I was too tired and angry to care, or else because Rhian’s bluntness had rubbed off, I added, “Can I help it if you had to take it up the tailpipe?”
The biker holding my wrists snorted.
Flame turned red. He grabbed my face and squeezed. With his other hand, he pulled out a bone-handled knife. “I don’t like folks talking crap about me or my boys. How about I fix it so you keep what we call a ‘respectful silence’ from here on?”
“I can’t remember him,” said David. “He killed himself when I was seven. He was schizophrenic. He’d been living in an asylum since I was five.”
“Bad break,” I said.
“Was it? Last week my grandmother auctioned one of Father’s asylum paintings for nine million, and that’s not a record for his work. His suffering has paid for everything I own.”
“Huh,” I said. “Kind of his gift to you, maybe.”
“No,” said David. “I’ve been trying to get inside his mind. I’ve been trying to get into his world with the drugs and the sleep and the rituals.” He shook his head. “I’ve gotten on the edge, I think. I keep getting close. But I’m too sane. Father didn’t know his own name at the end. Words were just a maze to him. All he understood by the end was how to put paint onto canvas. Some people say they find a language in his final paintings. I’ve never understood the vocabulary.”
He seemed lucid now, as lucid as a sweaty naked man with a pentacle on his forehead and lizard on his breath is ever likely to be. I edged my way to the door as I said, “You seem to be feeling better.”
“Better is so relative,” he said, bending over to place new candles at the points of the pentacle. “Ever since that book came out, I’ve just been so . . .”
After a moment, I realized he wasn’t going to finish the sentence. He began to light the candles.
He stood in the middle of the pentacle, his eyes closed, his hands folded before him in a prayer, his paintbrush pointing toward heaven. The way he held his arms, I could see for the first time the deep scratches along the insides of his wrist.
Wonderful. No wonder Celia had hidden the knives.
A man's face slammed into the glass.
Steve had a split-second to note the man's face had been damaged before the impact. Swollen eye, missing teeth, gleaming white bone exposed through one lacerated cheek. The next moment, the glass pane was webbed with cracks and smeared with fresh blood. Despite the mess, Steve could see what was behind the man.
"Preston," Steve said grimly. "They're here. Lots of—"
A hand partially stripped of flesh smashed through the damaged window and strained to reach Steve's throat.
He jumped back reflexively. "Whoa! That was close." Close enough for him to notice the man's broken and bloody fingernails. Steve grabbed one of the studio's cushioned chairs and thrust it at the undead man who was forcing his body through the shattered window pane. Absurdly, Steve felt like a lion tamer. All he needed was a whip.
More of the undead piled up behind the first man, pushing him unmercifully through the narrow gap, and pounding on the door with their fists and feet.
"Preston," Steve said, lurching forward as several hands grabbed the chair leg and attempted to wrest control of it. "We'd better get out of here. While we can."
Preston nodded and spoke urgently into the microphone. "Listen, gang, this isn't a prank. The radio station's been invaded. Any cops listening, haul ass to 100 Riverside Drive! We're counting on you! Hope we're back soon, people, but if not . . ." He took a deep breath to steady his voice. "Rage on!" He silenced the studio mikes, put the Scott System on automatic and wondered how long the station would run unattended before the undead destroyed the equipment. Peter Gabriel's "Red Rain" began to play.
Steve tugged off his headphones and released the chair, but had to duck as the undead man hurled it at him. Sailing over his head, the chair smashed the stack of plastic trays holding interoffice mail, timesheets, and scrap paper.
Preston whipped off his headphones, pushed the chair out of his way and hopped over the paper and plastic debris on the floor. Steve waited for him at the office door.
Some of the undead had picked up the short round table from the fourth floor lobby and were using it as a battering ram to break through the hallway door. The first undead man was almost all the way through the shattered window. His business suit was in tatters and smeared with blood. He was taking the brunt of the damage from the battering-table, but hardly seemed to notice or care as he clawed his way into the studio. Bloody drool looped down from his chin as he growled at them.
Preston shook his head.
"You're not thinking of going down with the ship."
"No," Preston said. "It's just weird how they don't feel any pain." He exhaled forcefully. "Okay, let's go. I have a plan. Assuming we can reach our office before them."
"Am I gonna like this plan?"
"Of course," Preston said with a grin. "It involves weapons."
By night, Elm Street was another world, with different rules.
By night, Mr. Kingston, who yelled at you if you stepped off the sidewalk onto his perfect lawn, wore a red ball gown and a blonde wig and sometimes spit champagne at his image in the full-length mirrors that lined one wall of his downstairs rec room. Mrs. Silvano, who swept her sidewalk every day and always asked you if you had said your rosary sang to her dead husband at her big black piano that took up her living room. He sat right next to her on the piano bench with his hand on her butt. In between numbers she told him about her day, laughing, answering him, and tossing her head, really young and sexy, not all shriveled up and old.
Ms. Johnson, who was really a vampire, waited for the young men who arrived every night, parking their cars around the corner on Maple Street, across from the empty lot where the boys rode their bikes. She would greet them at the door all dressed in black and usher them inside, pausing to peer past the screen door, eyes searching the night street like laser beams before closing the door. Once or twice, up early with the sun, Mari June had seen them stumble out again, white as the grubs you find under the bark on dead trees, or maybe something that lives in a cave. Then there was Miz Willows who walked her invisible dogs, chirping at them, babytalking to them, commanding them to get off that lawn right now, don’t you pee on that nice lily plant you big lunks. Her yard was all beaten dust and scraggly old rhododendrons with burnt up drooping leaves and straggling weeds that struggled and sometimes bloomed along the rusty chain link fence that bordered the sidewalk. Muddy brown rawhide bones and old sun-bleached rubber toys lay here and there. No dogs. Some of the boys threw stones into her yard and pretended to hit them. Then Miz Willows would come out the front door, yelling and waving a broom, threatening to call the cops, threatening to let her dogs loose to chew on their butts, her gray hair standing up all over her head, her Hawaii print dress as faded as the rubber toys in the dusty yard and about ten sizes too large. The boys would run away laughing and she would babytalk to her invisible pets, hushing their inaudible barking, telling them it was okay, not to kill the boys ‘cause they were just babies, before retreating to the house again.
Mari June liked Miz Willows. Mom wouldn’t let her have a dog and so she pretended—something she wouldn’t admit to if they tore her tongue out, like Sister Martha described when she read to them in Sunday School from the really cool, gross book about all the things people did to the saints. She’d created Shep when she was little, scared of the dark, and Mom wouldn’t let her have a night light because everybody knew that they were a fire danger. Shep was a big German Shepherd that slept on the foot of her bed and would tear out the throat of anybody who tried to hurt her. So she felt a certain kinship with Miz Willows, even though her hair was pretty awful. But she was old anyway, so it didn’t matter.