Provoker by Dan Champagne by Dan Champagne - Read Online

Book Preview

Provoker - Dan Champagne

You've reached the end of this preview. Sign up to read more!
Page 1 of 1

PROVOKER

Volume I of

the Abaddon Trilogy

by Dan Champagne.

published by PonderHouse.

copyright 2013 Dan Champagne.

[smashwords edition]

This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, creatures, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, business establishments, organizations, faiths, or actual persons, living or dead, or manifest entities, undead or otherwise, is entirely coincidental, with all due respect intended.

Copyright 2013 by Dan Champagne

Artworks copyright 2014 by Creative Monkey Designs

All rights reserved.

a PonderHouse publication

produced, edited by silent.

version 1.4s  2017/06/30

ISBN-13: 978-0-9913-5782-6

ISBN-10: 0-9913-5782-5

NocturnalWhispers.com

CreativeMonkeyDesigns.com

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

The publisher does not maintain control over and does not assume any responsibility for the above websites or their content.

Penned in the United States of America,

New Hampshire.

If you bought this book,

the author appreciates it.

To the Devil,

Without whom, we just wouldn’t be having any fun.

PROVOKER

  by

Dan Champagne

[legal about]

Book I: COLLUSION

01.Wherein this noble narrator picks up the trail,

and a new ally.

02.Wherein a fat guy has the worst night of his life, afterwhich a monumental meeting takes place.

03.Wherein bad things get talked over, and it’s agreed,

there’s no I in Team.

04.Wherein nightmares are made real,

an enemy is introduced,

and he eats someone.

05.Wherein God moves a single chess piece, twice.

06.Wherein we’re forced to deal with

underground magical Nazis.

07.Wherein enemies meet like friends, and discover some people aren’t as smart as they dress.

08.Wherein evil feeds on evil, and

good gets caught in the crossfire.

09.Wherein the magical bunker gets busted,

and the booty gets incinerated.

10.Wherein I burn a house down,

a cult gets torn down, and

the Reaper comes around.

Book II: MAYHEM

01.Wherein a bad-ass, sad-sack Frenchman

joins the game.

02.Wherein the ranks are replenished,

many cops meet their maker,

and THE Vampire arises.

03.Wherein comes to light an uncomfortable past involving

werewolves and witches.

04.Wherein we’re forced to deal with those

best never met in a dark alley.

05.Wherein a gumshoe barely escapes being eaten alive.

Some other cops?

…not so lucky.

06.Wherein lost lovers are reunited,

and fate starts spinning like a top.

07.Wherein is provided another fine example of how nicely evil plays with evil.

08.Wherein evil, with a capital E,

reveals its presence.

09.Wherein our ‘heroes’

get blitzed by the French.

10.Remember back when I tore that cult down?

Welcome to Level 2, Player 1.

Book III: CHAOS

01.Wherein black magic

and bureaucracy admix.

02.Wherein we see a Prince in Hell,

and his warm welcoming.

03.Wherein old secrets are revealed,

and an enemy restores his ally.

04.Wherein evil is betrayed, and

wherefrom shadows are escaped.

05.Wherein an angel battles a nightmare.

06.Wherein we frighten a gaggle

of misguided youth.

07.Wherein the players assemble,

battle-ready.

08.Wherein war pales all else.

09.Wherein the gameboard is reset,

with a few new players.

10.Wherein just desserts are dished out.

Book I:

COLLUSION

But as for cowards, the unfaithful,

The depraved, murderers, the unchaste,

Sorcerers, idol worshippers,

And deceivers of every sort,

Their lot is in the burning pool of fire and sulfur,

Which is the second death.

 

–The Revelation of St. John the Divine:

Twenty-first chapter, eighth verse.

Dramatis Personæ

Laiel Arturus Brockade: bastard, Son of the Devil, Provoker.

Bessalina Navalov: feral vampire.

The Night Reapers: outlaw motorcycle gang.

Rory Burke: brutal, ruthless gang leader.

Greg ‘Tommy’ Thompson: educated thug.

Ollie, Tank, Big Mac, Crazy Steve: Night Reapers.

Elle Baylake: the Dream Witch.

Rigoletto: the Nightmare.

Paul Havik: the Dark Druid.

Elaine Cobham: Maiden, Matron, Crone.

Tourille: alabaster Angel of God’s Wrath, Earthside.

Sven Von Blutritter: the Clerk, keeper of dark magic.

Krista Cruess: Priestess-Queen to the Unnamed Goddess.

Gaius Laspesa: psychic necromancer.

Indu Dipali Damayanti: fire demigoddess.

The Warlock: Antichrist’s left hand, ancient.

Ronan Fuller: accursed werewolf slave.

Agnes Nachmann: medieval witch.

one

"Mankind is a rope tied between beast and superman–

A rope over an abyss."

–Friedrich Nietzsche  

I hate New York City.

I remember the morning of September 11th, 2001. I got out of bed and started my morning routine, like just about any other day. The phone rings. I answer it. Happens to be an acquaintance of mine. The first words he says to me are– Laiel, don’t kill anybody! He tells me to turn on the TV. I do. I’m transfixed.

I watch it all unfold on live television, right there. I watch the second jet hit. I think back. In early August I was in New York. I wanted to go up to the observation deck in one of the towers. A security guard gave me a lot of shit. Wouldn’t let me go up. He was a real asshole.

I watch the buildings crumble. I’m satisfied thinking that there’s a very real possibility that that dick of a security guard just died.

I wish I was there as I watch. I wish I could hear the screams and THWACKS! of the bodies against the pavement as the citizens of New York jump instead of face the fires of Perdition that they so richly deserve.

I watch the roaring cloud of dust and debris fill up the streets like a Satanic wind. I want to be standing there, with my feet planted firmly apart, my arms upraised, my eyes closed, just drinking in the dark chaos.

Too bad. You can’t win ‘em all.

~~

Now. I stroll down the sidewalk. Could be any street at night in New York. There’s trash everywhere. Homeless people sleeping, dead, or worse. Being who I am, one might think that I would enjoy or even feel at home in a stinking, pustulent, graveyard of lost and evil souls like this city. But I don’t feel that way. I hate it. This city is the penultimate city to me. It’s the symbol of humanity’s failure. I look at this place and think– If people took the natural world and turned it into this contradiction of slums and ivory towers, this island of Heaven and Hell that’s paradise for the few and Gehenna for the many, if they turned the rivers, flowers, and forests into this– It proves they could have turned it into anything.

Instead, they turned it into what I am walking through right now.

I know why my Father loves humanity so much. Give people the easy choice of goodness, and the hard choice of evil, and people choose the wrong thing. Always. Satan gives humanity what they want, what they ask for.

I’ve been watching the war between good and evil, Heaven and Hell, escalate for my entire life. I’ve watched as moves were made by both sides. Like pieces being positioned on a chessboard.

The war has been going on for a long time. Hourly, it grows more murderous. Each side goes to battle assured of its eventual victory. I haven’t chosen a side, yet. Not truly. The only thing I am sure of is that the most certain victors will be death, destruction, and barbarism.

I reach my destination. The building is big. An obviously rat and roach-infested tenement. I see it for what it really is. An incubator of misery.

I stand across the street and watch the building’s front door. It’s dusk, so I wait for it to become fully dark before I go inside.

I start to walk across the street. That’s when I feel an emanation. This is familiar. It’s too good to just let it go. I veer off and step into the shadows and rot of an alleyway.

She’s scrabbling through god-knows-what. I catch sight of her, and she’s beautiful in the way that a torn body is.

We see each other.

Black eyes rimmed with bloodshot. Her hair might have been blonde once. Too filthy to know for sure. My mother’s hair was blonde. I smile at the thought. The air currents shift just that little bit and I smell her. She reeks of blood and shit. On her, it’s like perfume. She rises to a predatory crouch. She has something wet and roundish clutched in the claws of her left hand. A long, low, hiss escapes her. She probably can’t even speak anymore. But I can. Time to see if she can recognize what I am. I say–

Eef lof suffik ik mandaeus carmena upir.

She freezes in a dead stop. Good. She doesn’t have to die for a second time right now. She bares her teeth, and approaches slowly, fawning. It might be a smile, rat-like teeth stained with rust-colored dried blood, hard to tell. She drops the fresh severed head she’s holding with a wet splat.

When she gets close I extend my left hand, palm down towards her. She kisses the back with dry lips, then runs her sandpaper tongue along my fingers. She starts to suck with sexual glee, making moaning sounds in the back of her throat. I let her go on ‘til she’s satisfied. Her mouth is freezing cold.

Let’s go, I say.

I walk out of the alley and to the front door. She follows a respectful three steps behind me. I take the four stairs to the closed door in two bounds. She’s deathly quiet there, hovering at my back. I open the door, and of course, the bastard of a fucking thing creaks as I do it.

I take it in for a second. Flickering fluorescent bar overhead. Cracked and broken drywall, graffiti everywhere, fuck you, or the world, or some such shit. Broken wood paneling, chipped paint so old it’s impossible to tell what color. Concentrated smells of piss, cum, blood, and what-else. Hallway to the left. Stairs going up to the right.

A black guy steps out on the landing at the top of the stairs. Gang bandana around his head. Black Raiders jacket. Worn out blue jeans. He’s shaking. Probably barely able to stand. Hollow eyes. Cheek bones too prominent. Hard to guess his age. He’s already worn out by drugs and half a dozen other abuses. My Watcher comes close, whispering in my ear about the gun tucked in the front of his jeans.

Whatchew doin’ here, white-boy?! he says.

Classic case of wrong place on the wrong night. I feel my face twist into that sinister sneer that I’m so well known for. I can’t help it. I’m starting to enjoy it tonight, even though this is serious business. What the hell. Nothing wrong with me enjoying myself.

You don’t look like the man who’s gonna make me leave! I shout back at him. That’s all he needs. He’s faster than I thought he’d be. The gun is in his hand like magic. I show him some real magic.

She’s so tense behind me I can feel it on the back of my neck. I turn my head to the right and say to her– Go. She’s ten of the twelve steps up to him before he gets off a panicked shot. It hits the undead chickie right between the tits. There’s no blood. Just some fetid water, like Christ’s side being pierced. He doesn’t have time to cry out. She leaps the last six feet. She lands on him and there’s the crunch of bones snapping. Lots of snapping. Then she’s making sounds like a panting dog. I walk up the stairs while she’s finishing.

I pick up the gun. Stainless steel Smith and Wesson .357. I’m kinda surprised. Really nice gun for such a loser to be toting.

Suddenly, a door to the right opens. Why in the hell would someone do that? I think to myself. There’s an eye-hook chain on the door. An ugly, fat, Hispanic woman looking out. I don’t even think about it. I raise the gun and pull the trigger. Her face disappears in a flash of red.

Every time I fire a gun I’m reminded why people love them so much. The ugly weight in your hand makes killing too easy. Takes all the work, but none of the fun, out of it. There’s little room for deep thought in the time it takes to squeeze a trigger. I turn back to the vampire.

Rip his spine out, then go in there, I indicate the nearby apartment with a flick of my head. When you’re finished, come and find me, I’m going up. I start to walk away. Then turn back to her– Good work. Enjoy yourself. She gets to it. With a wrenching motion of one arm, vertebrae fly and bounce off the wall. Then she’s up. Busts down the cheap door with a slap of her bare palms. She goes inside. A woman screams. Once. A baby cries from deeper inside. I hear the crib coming apart. Then, nothing.

I go left at the end of the hallway, then turn right, and it’s up more stairs. Fourteen, maybe fifteen floors.

I reach the top. No working lights in any of the hallways. I expected that. I wait until the vampire joins me. She’s cat’s-paw quiet, so she dares to lightly touch my back with the tip of a claw. Letting me know she’s there. It’s not necessary, I can sense her emanations, the magic aura of her spirit, but I appreciate her courtesy all the same.

I calm myself. Let myself feel every sensation. The stink of this shitty tenement. The floorboards beneath my feet. The vague electromagnetic hum of TVs in the building. I concentrate on my heartbeat. Slow and strong. I give it a push. Adrenaline comes in, increasing awareness. My pulse starts to pound in my temples. My spirit suddenly leaps upward. I catch it quickly so that the turning of the Earth doesn’t strand it in the Abyss between the Gates. I rise swiftly above the shining crown of the night. I look down. Magical spirit-eyes searching. What I want isn’t here.

But some of the assholes I’m looking for are.

Now I know exactly where they’re hiding. They’re already engaged in the ritual. They have the Seven Liers-In-Wait with them. I gotta say, I’m a little impressed. The Seven who beget no children and ignore all prayers aren’t easy to summon.

I see the Seven at the same time the Seven see me. We stare at each other for a long moment. They become Seven times Seven. Readying to attack my circle. I whisper my name, quickly, seven times, and show them that I bear the mark of Cain. I whisper the words of Lamech through the Kurtael gate of death.

"I have killed a man for wounding me,

 A boy for bruising me.

 If Cain is avenged sevenfold,

 Then Lamech, seventy-sevenfold."

I wait. The Seven Liers-In-Wait surround me. Circling. They bow to me and await my word. I just tell them– Get the fuck out of here. And they’re gone. I come back down into my mortal coil, passing through my memory palace for a second to write down the experience in the library. My librarian catches my eye and shows a little leg, with doe-like eyes. Sexy.

Then I’m back in the dark hallway. With the vampire. I walk with purpose. Right up to a paneled wall. The dark doesn’t phase me. Not at all. Being the Devil’s son comes with a benefits package.

It’s a clever illusion. Looks like a boarded-over section of busted drywall. Even I might have missed this. I walk right through it and up the stairs hidden behind. The vampire hesitates. Looks like a wall to her, of course. I say in a slightly annoyed tone– Come on. I don’t have to tell her twice. She comes through.

I need stealth now. Time to make with the sneaky-sneaky. I spit on the wall. Quickly trace a Mandaean symbol there. An imp of sound instantly answers my call. I say to it– Hungry? The little bastard smiles, impossibly wide. All pointy teeth, claws, and whip-like tail. Tiny, to boot. Comes up to my knee.

Lotta sharp teeth following me around tonight, I think.

The three of us run up the stairs in total silence. Me, then the vampire, and finally the imp, gobbling up all the noise we’re making. We reach a metal fire door at the top of the stairs.

There’s a faint red glow around the door frame. I can instantly sense the emanations from some heavy duty spirit-chains binding the door closed. Not a physical barrier, but anything alive will have its soul ripped out through its skin, and bound from escaping by the chains from passing through them.

Lucky for me, the vampire isn’t alive, and has no soul. I get ready. I shout the Armanic rune kala for weakening, breaking, and destroying. The metal door bends a hundred different ways with a sound like a car wreck, then explodes to shrapnel, inward.

I take in the room at a glance. Not in black or white, or even tones of gray. I see it through the red lens of Hell.

Seven-foot-tall statue of the Virgin Mary. Painted with blood. Dried to a sick and solid maroon. Ingots driven through the eyes, breasts, and groin. Symbol of the Cult of the Torn Virgin. Two men, stripped to the waist. Chests spattered and soaked to the elbows. Blood. Dripping daggers clutched in gory hands. Soon-to-be-dead motherfuckers.

Table between them. Victim nailed down onto it. A boy. Maybe ten, maybe twelve. Punched the nails right through him. Pinned him face-down. Already carved him with the ritual egregores of the spell’s decans, right down to the bone, all over him. And you betcha he was alive when they did it.

And there’s a woman.

She’s towering. Six-and-a-half feet tall. Probably closer to seven. She’s wearing a god-form. Easy to tell which one. Her face is contorted and predatory. Six arms. Each holding a sword, axe, spear, dagger… all that pointy medieval shit what kills. Long curved fangs all the way down past her chin. She’s naked except for a skirt of human hands, and a belt of skulls. The twisted black avatar of Kali.

Nice tits though.

Parts of the ceiling are torn out. The moon and stars are impossibly bright and huge above. The blood looks black. Crazy silver and red light everywhere. Everyone has moon-shadows. Stretched and gray against the deeper dark all around. Like our spirits are thrown out onto the floor, with the gray evil plain to see.

I might die here. This is some heavy voodoo I’m looking at. The imp gets himself disappeared. Coward. But I don’t blame the little bastard.

I point and yell– GO! The vampire charges right through the spirit-chains. I see them wrap around her body and snap. I hit the deck as they lash out across the room. One of the men takes it full in the chest. His soul gets ripped out. It’s not pretty. All his flesh instantly vaporizes to a fine mist of blood. The mist goes everywhere. It’s acidic. And it’s on fire. Hot and cold flow. Mixed in infernal agonies. Naked flame dancing through the air.

The room’s on fire. The vampire’s on fire. I’m on fire.

Greasy black smoke and the smell of burning flesh, alive, dead, and undead, rises.

I see the asshole’s skeleton. Still standing upright. But only for a split second. The bones are black. And I know why. I can use that.

The vampire doesn’t hesitate. She grabs the chains and jumps on the second guy. He stabs her, but that means about the square root of fucking nothing to her. She rips his head off with her bare hands. Filthy claws piercing deep. She’s screaming with an earsplitting sound. She dives. Drinks the rest of his heart’s blood. Good. It’s what he deserves.

My face is still against what’s left of the floorboards. Kali’s coming for my ass. Not good. I get to my feet. Rush the table like a bull. It flips over on its side. That buys me a second.

I scream an ancient Lemurian incantation. I just barely get it out when the black goddess rives me right through the heart. Spear. Brought it with her from the First Creation, no doubt. I’d be dead instantly if I were a normal man, with a normal heart.

But I have the caligo heart. A black stone in my chest. A gift and a curse from my Father, gained from decades of using black magic. Still, it hurts like a sonuvabitch. Brings me to my knees. Tears squirting out of the corners of my eyes. If I wasn’t getting killed, I’d be embarrassed.

She’s above me. Gonna slice my balls off. Or cave in my skull. Neither of which I’ll survive. The Lemurian cant kicks in. The black skeleton leaps up off the floor. Starts to strangle her. Surprise! I think. She rounds on the new enemy. All six arms flailing.

The vampire comes back into it out of nowhere. Grabs one of Kali’s arms. Undead claws shred black flesh. The bone snaps with a sound like a wet branch breaking. She twists and pulls. Wrenches the arm off.

I take the distraction as an opportunity to pull the spear out of my chest. Encrusted and covered with green patina. I’m bleeding. A lot. I try to keep my grip on the spear, but I can’t feel my hands. I drop it. FUCK! I yell.

With three arms, the sorceress throws the vampire across the room. She hits the wall so hard the building shakes. She falls down. Leaves behind an impression shaped like her body. It looks like something out of a cartoon. I’d laugh, if I wasn’t about to die. It does something to the sense of humor. Imminent death, that is.

I see the Kali-bitch reduce my skeleton buddy to a bunch of bone fragments in about three seconds. The pieces are still moving. She makes a mistake. They’re not a threat, but she hisses a curse of destruction at them. The bones are instantly reduced to gray ash.

I make sure to remember the word I heard her use.

The vampire buys me the few desperate seconds that I need. She comes up with a kukri knife from the arm she ripped off. The forward-curved blade arcs through the air. Cleaves off half of Kali’s face. There’s a shrieking of god-spirits. An eerie whistle coming from the hungry dark. We’ve finally hurt her.

Kali screams. The vampire screams. I scream.

I pull myself together (somewhat). A second’s concentration. My spirit rises up. Into the zodiac. I call out to Sekhmet during the time when she almost exterminated mankind. She sees me. Her lioness head turning, the sun blazing above it, blinding me.

When I slay, my heart rejoices! she shouts to me in ancient Egyptian.

I shout back– Then slay this bitch with me!

She comes onto me. Fast. I let her ride me.

Controlled and voluntary possession.

I open my eyes. And Sekhmet’s eyes. At the same time. With all the power and fury of Sekhmet combined with the evil black stone of my heart, I hiss Kali’s curse of destruction right into her own face.

It sends the avatar of Kali fleeing. Shrieking back through the gates of Hades, beyond Gehenna, and down into the dark between worlds.

There’s suddenly a normal woman standing in front of me. Short. Overweight. Badly dyed black hair. Pale and trembling. I take a menacing step forward. Give her my best death-stare. Glare right into her eyes. She looks back at me. Raw fear.

That’s OK. I like it raw sometimes.

To the vampire I say– Eat her. Make it hurt. And slowly. The vampire grabs the woman’s arm and twists so hard and fast the other woman flips to the floor. She pins her down and mauls her neck. More shrieking. The sounds eventually peter off. Eventually.

There’s still work to be done. I say a few words and summon a wind to kill the fires. Next, I kneel down by the boy’s corpse. I run my hands over him. Slowly. Purposefully. Feeling every mark cut in his ruined flesh. The palms of his hands. His innocent face. I read his life this way. Quickly skipping through what I don’t need. Loves baseball, Red Sox fan. Lives in the town of Northborough, Massachusetts. Mom’s a MILF. Dad’s in a motorcycle gang. Kidnapped with his mom and her best friend, this morning. I have what I need. The next place to start looking.

I stand up. I hurt all over. I say to the vampire– You done, babe? She looks up at me with all sorts of adoration in those dead shark-eyes.

I limp out of the room and start to go down the stairs. The vampire wraps one arm around me and helps support me on the way down. She’s really strong of course, and I appreciate the help.

We don’t see anyone on the way down, and we make it outside. Nobody called the cops. Figures. Place like this, two gunshots, a little noise up in the attic… so long as it stays there, everybody minds their own beeswax.

Here we go our separate ways. At least for now. I stand in front of her, take her hands in mine, look her right in the eyes and say– You’re very beautiful. Thank you for the help. Right now I can’t take you with me. I got no place to hide you from the sun, but I want to see you again. I place two fingers on her throat, press down, and say a Mandaean incantation. I know it hurts her for me to mark her like this, and she winces, but doesn’t pull away.

This mark I just put will let me call you. You’ll simply know where to go to find me. I’ll probably need you soon. You good with that? She smiles real wide and nods enthusiastically. It’s scary as all hell.

You better get out of here now. We’ll see each other again, real soon. You saved me up there. I won’t forget that. She starts to leave, then suddenly turns back on me. Throws her arms around my neck. Kisses me hard on the lips. I kiss her back. The blood of my enemies on her lips tastes sweet. Her tongue darts into my mouth. Three times. Like an icepick. I return the pleasure. She seems a little embarrassed afterward, and jogs away, making a wet tittering noise that I take to be vampire-schoolgirl giggling.

I wait a couple of minutes to make sure she’s safely away. Then I walk across the street and stand on the sidewalk, facing the front of the building. I gather some power inside of me. Reach into my pocket. Draw out a tarot card. It’s very old, and shows a tower being obliterated by lightning, doomed bodies falling from the stone edifice. I say a few words and the card immolates in my hand. Gone, in a sudden bright flash of flame.

A minute passes. Then there’s a peal of thunder overhead. Lightning flashes down. Three bolts winging from sky to earth. Brilliant streaks in blinding white. Like the wrath of God. But it’s not the wrath of God. It’s my wrath.

Part of the building crumbles. Old brick sliding and falling away in a tide of dust. There’s fire. Fast. Intense. Soft yellows blazing to oranges and reds against the curtain of the night. I watch as the whole building goes up. Maybe fifteen to twenty people get out alive, coughing and throwing up. I listen for the sirens in the distance, and make sure it’s a total loss. No one who comes out even gives me a second look. I hate New York City.

As I walk away, I say under my breath–

 Fuck Crowley.

two

The Night Reapers motorcycle gang came down I-93 from New Hampshire into Massachusetts. It was night and they were coming back from killing a man. This time though, they had good reason. Or at least reason enough for them. And that wasn’t hard for them to come by. One more unsolved crime. The kind of thing that Johnny Law knew they had done, but couldn’t do anything about.

After all, there was a difference between what you knew, and what you could prove ‘Beyond a Reasonable Doubt’ in a court of law.

They were doing about ninety down the highway. Rory Burke, the president of the club was in the lead, riding his black Harley Davidson Sturgis. Just behind and on his left hand, was Greg Tommy Thompson, the Reapers vice president. He was the smartest guy in the club, and Burke knew it. Tommy had a college degree, in psychology, which he used to figure new ways to scare the shit out of people. Tommy was also the youngest, being only twenty-six. He followed Burke’s lead.

Behind them was the club’s road-master, Barry Macmullin, the Big Mac. Barry was an awfully big man, and he knew how to use his size when things went south. Which was often for the Reapers. Barry was also a great mechanic, which was especially good for him, he was notorious for crashing his bike, and walking away with a smile. Next to Barry was Michael Tank Tanaka, half Chinese, and he looked it.

Tank loved the psychological advantage being Asian gave him, mostly because he was a fifth dan in kenpo karate. He was also totally ruthless. The kind of guy who would kill you dead with his bare hands in three seconds flat, then kick a kitten for the fun of it as he escaped the scene.

Cruising behind the leaders riding a tricked-out mule trike was the gang’s sergeant-at-arms, Gene Stephens. Crazy Steve was worthy of being called crazy, and not the funny, ha–ha, kind of crazy. The blow-you-up-with-a-homemade-bomb kind of crazy. Gene Stephens was a grizzled old man. Lied about his age to go to Vietnam, and became a combat engineer. He had three tours in and asked for a fourth… and got denied. He was honorably discharged from the army. They spared him the Section 8. But still, he was drummed out for psychological reasons. Gene enjoyed blowing shit up and burning things down a little too much.

Trailing the pack was Andrew Oliver. Ollie was the slightly spooky guy in the group. Always high on something, he was the only one of them who’d ever experienced anything supernatural. But no one believed him, so he kept his mouth shut about it. He had a real bad feeling about the shit that was going down. And that feeling was only growing stronger. Ollie’s mother was long dead, she died when he was fifteen, but she had been a real gypsy, full-blooded Romany. She had been a fortune teller. She really had ‘The Sight.’ And she had taught Ollie two things. The first was how to bilk Giorgios out of cash in short cons. The second was how to recognize omens in cards. Doing it with tarot cards wasn’t worth squat, Ollie thought. Who ever used them for anything other than telling fortunes? But she had also taught him what to see in regular playing cards, which were actually older than the tarot, a fact that few people were aware of. More than once Ollie had seen life or death coming at him and the rest of the guys over a hand of poker.

Every one of them wore leather, either a jacket or a vest, bearing the gang’s cut. The heraldry was a skull with red eyes and two crossed six-guns below. The Jolly Roger of the road. The top cut read Night Reapers, the bottom cut read Massachusetts. Everyone was sporting a One Percenters patch. Crazy Steve also sported a POW/MIA patch.

The One Percenter cut wasn’t just for show. The Reapers were true outlaws. They earned by selling guns to other outlaws, the drug trade, and murder-for-hire. Whatever that paid the bills. They weren’t picky. They were doing something right. They’d been alive, and stayed out of prison, for twenty years as a functioning organization. Doing crime for a living. For sure, they were on the watch lists for a big bowl’s worth of the alphabet soups. FBI, ATF, Interpol, maybe even Homeland Security. They wore it all like a badge of honor. Nothing ever stuck. Burke’s leadership and Tommy’s smarts always managed to let them walk away from whatever insane shit they pulled. They’d gotten away with what mortal-man-was-not-meant-to-get-out-of. So far.

Yesterday, Burke’s son Ryan, his old lady Rita Mae, and her best friend Amanda had all disappeared making a run to Canobie Lake Amusement Park in New Hampshire. There was no warning. They’d just left in the morning. And never came back. At any given time, the Night Reapers had at least two or three different enemies gunning for them. Competition. Anyone with any brains at all knew to steer clear of the civilians though. To touch the gang’s women and kids would bring a swift and apocalyptic response. War. Total.

This felt different. When the kid and the women were a couple of hours overdue, and no one could raise them on their cell phones, the Reapers saddled up and went looking. They didn’t call the police. They cruised the route the missing would have taken. They found the car pushed off the side of the road and into the woods six hours later, a little after midnight.

There were some signs, but nothing that let on for certain as to what had happened. But it didn’t look good. Broken driver side window. Cracked windshield. It didn’t look like a car crash. The weirdest thing was that there were some claw marks on the trunk of the car. Looked like they’d been made by some kind of animal. Which was possible… remotely. Tommy had put the tips of his fingers into the long scratches. They fit the shape and size almost perfectly. Ollie felt something fall from the back of his throat and pit his stomach deep as he watched. No one said anything about it.

The Reapers figured it was a kidnap. To lean on them, somehow. They’d get the call soon. If it was revenge murder, or the start of a war, the doers would leave the bodies public-wise. Make sure they’d be found, quick. The cops would come knocking with the news.

Any way this panned out, the Reapers didn’t want the law involved. They doused the car with gas and torched the fucking lot.

Nobody gave a fuck about Amanda, and Burke didn’t even care very much about Rita Mae. Burke’s son was a different matter entirely. They all loved the kid. They all knew that whatever way they got Ryan back, dead, alive, or alive and broken, that Burke was going to take a personal interest in the suffering of the perpetrators.

Ollie got a worse and worse feeling as they watched the car burn. He was high on crank and a really good hit of acid, and he thought he kept seeing shapes in the flames. Maybe faces. Maybe demons. He kept seeing what he thought was some bitch with big tits and six arms. He couldn’t be sure if it was the drugs… or something else. He played it wise and didn’t speak up about it.

After the car was good and crisped, the Night Reapers rode straight back to Northborough, in Mass. They held an immediate meeting in their clubhouse to plan their next move. Tommy thought it was a spic gang of drug dealers that operated out of Lawrence. An equal possibility was that it was the Black Sapphires, a rival motorcycle gang that worked out of southern New Hampshire. Crazy Steve suggested that it might be prime FBI, trying to get a rise out of the gang. Make them do something drastic. And then catch them doing it. They humored the old man. But nobody else honestly thought that the alphabet soup would resort to something as brazenly illegal as kidnapping civilians.

The Reapers decided to pay one of the Black Sapphires a visit the following night. They all knew it, but nobody said it, that this meant doing killing. The guy they talked to would have to disappear. Any outlaw knew that getting your ass zapped and disappeared on any given night just came with the life. Usually it was a no offense, and just business, sort of thing. This time, the Reapers were pissed off. Burke wanted blood. And he wasn’t going to settle for anything less.

They closed the meeting with that. Turned in.

All were troubled by bad dreams.

~~

The Reapers spent a tense day waiting for the dark to come. They liked the dark, and they needed it. These men were the proverbial biblical thieves and liers-in-wait. They didn’t have anything good to offer their fellow man, and they sure as shit weren’t going out with any good intentions tonight.

Before they left, they loaded up to play world war three in the streets. Burke carried a double-barreled twelve gauge shotgun, sawed down to the size of a big pistol. He liked the wrist-straining buck of the big gun. When he used it, the jolt up his arm was like an extension of his own rage. It made him smile. He packed his own shells. Buckshot, and rock-salt coated with epoxy. Mind-breaking pain. Certain death up close. He also packed a big, nasty bowie knife. He put it to the steel and stone, often. The bastard could split hairs, and Burke was a sadistic expert in a pig-sticking contest.

Tommy was even more of a bastard than Burke when it came to his personal weapons. When he was in college, he’d read about how Nazi assassins had used hollowpoint bullets filled with wolfsbane or cyanide. He could never get cyanide, but strong liquid wolfsbane was easy to come by. He ordered it on the internet, or cruised the occult shops in Salem to find it. And it was cheap. He bought jacketed hollowpoint rounds and pried the heads off of the bullets, then filled them with the poison. He was really fond of the idea of some asshole dropping dead an hour after taking even a minor hit to the arm or leg. Not that Tommy ever proceeded with a plan to whack anyone in a minor way. He loaded the wolfsbane rounds into a .357 revolver. For backup, he carried a hatchet.

Big Mac Macmullin hauled around a 9mm mini-Uzi. Honestly, the gun looked a little silly being so small in his huge ham fist, but he was strong enough to unload with the little fucker on full-auto with almost no muzzle-drag. He preferred to go to work up close, that’s what the baby sledgehammer he carried was for.

Crazy Steve always carried crazy shit on nights like this. He had the kind of shit under his jacket that would cause earth tremors. They were only after one guy tonight though, so Steve was traveling light. He had three sticks of nitroglycerin dynamite, homemade, and powerful enough to blow a clean hole in a ten-foot-thick concrete wall. He also had a Russian-made 9mm Stetchkin pistol. Just to balance things out, he had cooked up a little napalm mixed with some white phosphorous, put it in an old mason jar, and topped it off with a blasting cap. It had been a slow lazy day for Crazy Steve, and he wasn’t expecting much trouble tonight. If he had been, what he would have been carrying would have been much, much, worse.

Tank didn’t much like guns, preferring to break bones and snap necks with his hands. He liked to feel flesh and bone grind to paste. But he wasn’t stupid. He had a 10mm Glock tucked into the waistband of his jeans. He was kind of a romantic, so he carried a Wakazashi shortsword and tanto dagger, too. He enjoyed getting unlucky punks at his mercy, and then not showing them any, acting like a kaishaku and lopping their heads off. He was always unreasonably proud when he could knock someone’s block off with one swing. Burke could tell what a morale booster it was for Tank, so he let him have his fun.

Ollie grabbed an old deck of cards his mother had given him on one of his birthdays. He thought the cards might be more useful than any guns, especially after what he’d thought he’d seen in the fires the night before. Better to have a gun and not need it than need a gun and not have it, so he also carried a pair of snub-nosed .38s. Just in case, he slipped a switchblade into his back pocket.

After they had all armed up, the Reapers sat together at a table near the bar in their clubhouse, had a drink and played a round of five-card draw. Outside of funerals, this was as close to an official club ritual as they engaged in. They didn’t ever talk about it, but the drink and the card game was a sort of ‘For those about to die, we salute you!’ Just in case any of them died doing the bad shit they were about to do, the survivors had the memory of a drink and a final conversation with their brothers over a penny-ante game of cards. It was about as nostalgic as men like them were ever able to act.

After the ritual, they went outside and started their bikes. They revved the engines. Loud and long. They didn’t give a shit if anyone cared. Or called the police. But they knew they wouldn’t dare. The way they figured it, the Grim Reaper himself was crossing the River Styx and coming on dry land to accompany them. They knew Charon was going to want to be hovering close at hand if they got their way (and when didn’t they?). A man was going to lose his life tonight. A pack of Reapers were on the road, coming to take it.

Burke waved his arm in the air in a wide circle, ending with a forward signal, bringing his arm down and straight ahead. In unison, the riders took off, blazing north. Burke took the lead. Tommy followed him. Big Mac and Tank came next, side by side. Then there was Crazy Steve on his trike. Finally, Ollie.

~~

It took two and a half hours for the Reapers to reach their destination. Salem, New Hampshire.

Even though the Night Reapers didn’t live there, or even typically operate there, they all held a sneaking and secret love for the state of New Hampshire. Scattered with big enough cities and sprawling rural communities to house the criminal element in which they thrived, while still being small enough to avoid the notice (most of the time) of large law enforcement. Add to that some very lax gun laws around purchase, sale, and concealed carry, and this place was as close to paradise for guys like the Night Reapers as they were likely to find in the USA. Plus, the state motto is cool as shit– Live Free or Die. Ah, it just didn’t get much better than New Hampshire. The only real problem was that all of New England turned to a frozen hell for around six months of the year. Too icy, too cold, for the bikes.

Once they reached Salem, the Reapers split up and cruised the streets for about an hour. They gauged the presence of cops, and scouted around for any of the Black Sapphires. None of them found anything worth more than a glance. Black Sapphire bikes parked outside of a watering hole their gang was known to haunt. Two cops staking out a local Dunkin’ Donuts. No doubt making sure no one was hijacking any vital shipments of sugary pastries and coffee. Guardians of the general peace. Sure thing.

They converged in a vacant lot. Tommy couldn’t cry foul about anything that he’d seen. He had the best feel for the towns in New Hampshire. He’d grown up in Manchester, until he was fifteen. He didn’t know how, or why, but the police and local radio, television stations, and newspapers, had some kind of back-alley deal about exactly what to make public and what to sweep under the proverbial carpet. It maintained the scenic and idyllic reputation the place was known for. And it was a pure fabrication. Tommy knew it. He’d told the others all about it. When he was twelve, he and a friend had been fishing off the banks of the Merrimack River. They’d hooked and reeled in a corpse. Murdered. Tommy said the guy had so many bullet holes he looked like a wad of rat cheese. Tommy and his pal had jackrabbited for the nearest cop. Not word one about it from any of the media outlets. Again, when he was fifteen, just before he moved to Massachusetts, he was sitting at home with some friends. Third floor apartment. Summertime. The back door opened onto a fire escape– and that’s the way it was, open. Letting in the cool night air. They heard a short gunfight occur out in the street. Close. Way too close. Bang, bang, bang. And bang, bang, bang, back. Tommy got up, nice and calm, and closed the door. Then he dialed 911. The lady cop who picked up told him they already had it reported. For days afterward, Tommy had watched the news. Read all the local papers. Nothing. Not one word about it. Whatever happened those times, neither the cops, nor the local media, seemed to want anyone to know about it. So, barring a direct confrontation with the cops, the Night Reapers didn’t figure there would be more than a tacit, and quiet, investigation around what they were up to tonight.

They had already picked out the asshole who was about to have the unluckiest night of his life. He was a fat, greasy-haired bastard who hung out at a titty bar on most nights. The Reapers figured that maybe the Black Sapphires wouldn’t mind the loss so much. This was a guy who needed to pay strippers to score. Yeah. THAT kind of guy. The idea of any self-respecting outlaw needing to pay a titty-bar whore for some pink was almost beyond comprehension. Sure, the loss of one of their own would wound the Sapphires’ pride, and it demanded some kind of revenge, but both Burke and Tommy felt that they would be doing the Black Sapphires a twisted sort of backhanded favor. After all, they were disposing of some real human garbage. A guy that probably should never have been let in their club in the first place.

The Reapers stowed their bikes a block away from the stripper hole. Then they curled up, concealed in a dark alley across the street from the bar. Waiting for the fat fuck to show his poor, doomed, face. They were crouching in the dark almost three hours. And that didn’t do anything positive for their attitudes. They were deciding whether or not to send one of their own in to flush out the prey when the fucker came out on his own.

The gang quickly crossed the street. Heads down. Walking fast. Fanning out as they did it. Surrounding the fat bastard. By the time Harry looked up and saw them it was too late. Dawning comprehension in the expression. Too little, too late. Even so, he didn’t turn out to be quite the pushover they had taken him for. The asshole sensed the deadly threat. Then he fought like a lion. He was strong. And faster than he should have been. Still, he wasn’t a skilled fighter. He was surrounded. Outnumbered. But he did take them by surprise, but only for a second. A ham fist streaked through the gloom. Clumsy, but swift. He got Big Mac good. Broke his nose. Blood everywhere. A big ‘V’ of red down the front of the big man’s face, over his chin. Then Tank laid down the law. Kicked Harry’s ass in less than five heartbeats. A hard shuto to the throat. That shut him up. His eyes just bulged. One hand to his wounded windpipe. Tank was careful. Hard enough to stun. Delicate enough not to bring the Grim Reaper swooping down. Next came a hard kick to the balls. Fat Harry was paralyzed. Body leaned forward at a steep angle. But he kept his feet. Tank just laughed. Finished him off with a cool scissor kick to the head. It dropped him to the pavement like a ton of whale blubber.

The Reapers were instantly on the downed prey. Descending like a murder of crows clad in biker-black leathers. Boot party. They kicked and stomped the asshole. Heavy boots coming down. Again and again. Burke had to start grabbing jackets. Physically haul his boys off. He was afraid they’d kill the guy before they could whisk him away for the question-and-answer session. Crazy Steve rolled up right then. The old man was level headed, in that war vet’s way. When it came to mayhem and murder, he had ice water for blood. He’d made a run for his trike the moment Fat Harry had come out. They grabbed the bastard up, quick. Tommy turned from it. Stood watch. Eyes scanning the streets. In all directions. He saw a car glide through an intersection nearby. No pedestrians. Nothing else. It all went down clean and fast. The others had the meat up. Tied him onto the rear of Crazy Steve’s bike. Threw a rain tarp over him. Secured the bundle with big bungee cords. Hid the sweaty, stinking carcass. Then Gene just rode off. And they continued walking. Just minding their own business. Nothing to see here.

They made their way back to their bikes. Gene was waiting there with the ‘cargo.’ Less than a minute, and the crew was back on the road.

~~

They took off to a state park that was just north of Salem. They parked in a picnic area near a swimming hole. Big Mac broke out a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7. The Reapers passed it around. Ollie got out a fat joint, and they all got high. Tank took a bucket down to the lake. Brought back water.

They untied the doomed man, and then rolled the fatass out onto the lawn. He had a name patch on the front of his vest. Harry, in cursive. In case he forgot. Tank doused him with the bucket of water. He started to wake up. Blinked a lot. Finally, he looked up. Face bloody. Expression bewildered. What… who…? he said wearily. The Reapers laughed. The stupid fat asshole still didn’t understand what was happening to him.

Wakey–wakey, shithead, Burke said. Then he drew his bowie knife.

Let’s talk, Tommy said. Hatchet in hand. A smile on his face.

There’s some shit we wanna know, Big Mac intoned. Hefting his baby-sledge.

This is gonna be like some of those fun nights I had back in ‘Nam, Crazy Steve said. He got a couple of sideways glances. Gene Stephens even scared some of his brothers when he got like this.

Tank just cracked his knuckles. The sound, a tight series of loud pops against the shadows and sudden silence. Like bones breaking.

Ollie started to shuffle his cards. Hands moving rapidly. Absently. A programmed, nervous response. He drew a card. Looked down at it. Dark. But he could still see it well enough. Ace of Spades. Figures, he thought.

Oh my fuckin’ god, Fat Harry said in a low voice. His terror crawling through the wreckage of the words.

What followed was an hour and a half straight out of Dante’s Inferno. When they were finally convinced that they had gotten everything useful they could out of Fat Harry, Crazy Steve executed him with a double-tap to the back of the head from his Stetchkin. They dug the bullets out of the ground. The little hunks of lead would be pounded out with a sledge. Thrown away while cruising down the highway. No ballistics for any cops to find. Burke was seriously worried.

They hadn’t learned a fucking thing.

Both he and Tommy had major doubts about how to proceed from there.

One murder already in the hole and the Night Reapers were no closer to knowing what had happened to their women or Burke’s son. None of them harbored any moral or ethical distress over the killing, it only weighed on them insofar as it was a pretty major crime, against a rival gang, and it had yielded nothing. The law was definitely going to suspect the Reapers when it became known that the victim had gone missing. The Black Sapphires were unlikely to call the cops, but everybody in a club had family and friends that weren’t part of the life. Fat Harry would eventually be missed. The cops might even find the body. Buried in a shallow grave in the woods. Some quick-lime thrown over it.

The Night Reapers were smart enough to know that there would be some kind of evidence left behind that might possibly link them to the crime, because they were the ones that had done it.

They figured on blowing up that bridge when, and if, they came to it. Evidence could disappear out of the lockers. Cops could be bribed. And lawyers that were slick enough to make what was so obviously black look white in a court of law could be paid for.

The men dragged the body a fair distance into the woods. Did the grave duty. Then they cleaned up in the swimming hole. Mounted their bikes. Used what was left of the night to get back to their clubhouse in Northborough.

They parked their bikes in the garage. Walked up to the front door. Tank unlocked the triple deadbolt and combination lock set in the heavy duty steel fire door. Ollie started shuffling his cards. He had a pit in his stomach, the proverbial black-cat-across-his-path feeling. They opened the door and walked in. But the Night Reapers had no idea what they were walking into.

Laiel Brockade was sitting at a table in the middle of the room. Facing the door. He was having a drink. And waiting for them to arrive.

three

When I had come up to the door, about three hours before the Night Reapers came back from New Hampshire, I had a tough moment figuring out just how to get through it and into their clubhouse. It was one of those big metal doors. Set in a steel frame. A line of locks down one side. No visible hinges. The look of it. It screamed CRIMINAL in my face. The sorta thing big-time drug dealers have. Or terrorists. I had the Reapers pegged as maybe a lot of both. At the same time. People not to be fucked with. Best to start off on the right foot here. And that meant NOT destroying their front door. Sure, I could just magic the fucker. Reduce it to slag. Or bust it up. A thousand little metal pieces. I could think of two dozen different ways to do it, right off the top of my evil little head. But I wanted to impress these guys… before they tried to kill me. Which was most certainly what they were gonna attempt to do when they arrived and found me inside their place.

I calmed myself. Stood stone-still. Measured my heartbeat. Gave it the long ten-count. Sent my mind outward. Upward. Past the astral. Into the higher decanic realm. There was bound to be a lot of spirits, and other sundry ghostly bullshit, I could twist to my purposes there. I sensed a pretty old cemetery nearby. Maybe a half of a mile distant. I considered taking a mosey over. Creeping around the place. I might be able to find the grave of a thief. If I was lucky. Summon up the spirit. Put it to work on the locks. I didn’t really feel up to the walk though. So I stayed put. Sent my wandering mind higher. Into the Greater Darkness. Things Man Was Not Meant To Know glared at me from the lost realms. The original serpent approached me. Crawling on its belly. Licking the dust. Eyes full of wisdom. It wrapped around my body. Seeking to corrupt me. Too late. I was corrupted by the moment of my conception. It hissed. But held back its sting.

I came into the area of the moon. But from where I was, it wasn’t the moon. Sure, it was THE MOON. But it was more than just dust, gray rocks, and craters. Here, it was Luna. It was Arcadia. It was the magical portal to the Lacunae. The spaces between spaces. Where madness dwells. Where lurks what the insane see, that the sane don’t. I could feel its power reaching for me. Tendrils of the lost and lonely mind. Trying to take me. Too late for that, too. I was already crazy. Schizophrenia and delusional disorder. Mixed with a little psychotic paranoia. It was great fun growing up. High school was a blast, lemme tell ya. But my own madness rendered me immune to the emanations of the Lacunae. It also goes a long way to making magic easier. The first person that you have to convince that reality is DIFFERENT from what the day-to-day, Joe taxpayer people take it for… is yourself. You have to KNOW that you can do the empirically impossible. I was never very hard to convince. Thanks Dad, you fallen, soulless bastard, for these gifts that your seed let blossom in me.

I turned and stared. Looking down at where I came from. Dizzying height. Vision like a microscope. Seeing WAAAAAY down to where my body was standing. I had found what I needed. I drew my body up to where the rest of me was. And then I walked down a moonbeam. Through a closed window. Right through the glass. Same way the moon’s light did it. It is a vampire’s trick. And that’s where I learned it. From an honest to goodness Transylvanian vampire.

Then I let reality crash back. In it zoomed from all points. A sphere compressing around me. Waves breaking on a shore.

And there I was. In the Night Reapers clubhouse.

I took a few seconds. Reordered my soul. Then, my mind.

The room was dark. But the moonlight streaming in the windows gave me enough light to see by. I can’t exactly see in the dark. But I have night vision that goes beyond what any normal person could possess. A gift of the devilish blood. Dad’s pecker is generous with his sons and daughters. Still, I uttered a spell. One hidden in the Bible.

I have become a brother of jackals, a companion of owls. It rolled out. I put the magical oomph into the words. Instantly I gained the sight of an owl. The scent of a jackal. The vision was plenty good. But the place reeked. Old, spilled beer. Stale cigarette smoke. Pot. All the juices and effluvia you’d expect in a place like this. All up in my nose.

I