Chapter Five of Hunters is up! Feedback on this and previous draft chapters is appreciated.
Also,the anthology Saints and Sinners is now available, featuring the short story prequel to Hunters, Harsh Mistress! A pirate captain sails his ship into Hell to rescue the woman he loves.
Previous chapters can be found on the Hunters page.
Compare the latest version with the first draft here!
I winced as a cramp knotted the scarred muscles of my leg. I unfolded it as much as I could in the confines of the coach-class seats and finished the plastic bottle of vodka in my hand. For a moment the torturous memory of shattered bone gripped me. The cabin filled with distant, scouring winds that reeked of avgas and burning meat. Always the itch started with memory. It had been hours since I last dosed, and it would take me at least an hour to score in Seattle after landing. The fact I could, and often did, go without for longer didn’t help. That I had no option to indulge at that second prodded my nerves.
“Another vodka?” I asked the stewardess passing by with the beverage cart.
Her thoughts morphed to concern as I spoke.
“You won’t be a problem, will you, Mr. Decker?” She asked.
“I’m not interested in causing a problem, ma’am. Just another vodka.”
She frowned and exchanged a bottle in the cart for the twenty dollar bill I gave her. “This is the last one,” she warned, but it was an empty threat. She had made almost a hundred off me with the tips.
I smiled and waited for her to move on. Then I swallowed the two Vicodin in my palm and chased them with the contents of the bottle. The VA threw pills at me despite the warning signs. My problems were far easier to medicate than cure.
“How many bottles is that, bro?” Asked a thin, reedy voice through my earbuds. The digital image of a knight scowled at me from a window in the corner of my tablet screen. Red and orange pixels of flame licked the medieval cottages behind him.
“And how many pills?”
I scowled. “You’re not here to monitor me.”
“Mea culpa.” The knight raised his hands, palms forward. The veneer of corded muscle and shining armor hid his sallow skin, thinning black hair and prodigious weight, though I could see hints of Eugene’s body language behind the avatar. The Gluttony Cursed I had rescued him from had chosen him for a reason.
Eugene continued. “By the way, nothing made the news about Rothschild manor.”
“I didn’t think it would.”
“That’s because you didn’t torch the place. That seemed the smartest plan for taking on four demons.”
“There were at least a dozen humans in there. I wanted to destroy demons, not murder their thralls.”
“Crap. Then a big thank you from the ex-Cursed puppet crowd for no collateral damage.”
This was more casual conversation than Eugene had ever ventured. I scowled. “I sense a ‘but’ coming.”
“I thought you couldn’t, you know, see things long distance.” Eugene wiggled his fingers as if using magic.
“I’m a psychologist. Give me some credit.”
“Fair enough. But,” he overemphasized the word, “then you jump on a plane and jet off to Seattle. How much did you pay for a last-minute flight across the country?”
“I thought you were a computer wizard. Just find out.”
“That doesn’t take any more voodoo than hitting up a travel site. It’s just I didn’t have time with the goose chase you sent me on. I’ve never seen you with a hard-on for a Cursed like this.”
I grimaced. His slight carried more weight than he understood. “So did you find anything?”
“With all that info you gave me?” Eugene scoffed. His avatar’s gauntlet, holding a leg of meat by the bone, moved toward his mouth. The crunch of chips rattled over the connection. “Tricia Praest is a ghost.”
“You found nothing?”
“I have a name and your drawing. Oh, and that she’s sexy as heck. That’s it. Not the best start for a search.”
“You’ve worked your magic with less than that before.”
“True. But there is nothing to find. There are no records of a Tricia Praest in Seattle,” Eugene said. “And before you ask, not in Washington either, or the whole country. No tax records, no utility bills, no licenses, no arrest records, no bank accounts-”
“She can’t live off the grid in the middle of a city.”
“Um, apparently she can. Plus no mentions of her in blogs or emails. No teen hotties with crimson eyes in the ‘I saw you at the club’ sections of the local papers. I even tried an image search, which was close to pointless going off a drawing. Did you ever take art lessons?”
“I told you there wouldn’t be any images.” Most Cursed had unique weaknesses I could exploit. But if Praest had one beyond lacking a reflection or electronic image, neither my wife Helen nor Ashlea Rothschild had known it. Even my drawing wasn’t worth a great deal. The memories of Praest from the two couldn’t be trusted with the raw sensuality that drenched every recollection.
Eugene shook his head. As he spoke, a woman with arms flailing and hair afire ran out of the blazing cottage behind him. “Think about that for a sec. She can’t get a passport, driver’s license or ID. That means she’s not flying or driving or renting an apartment, let alone opening a bank account or buying property. She probably lives off the grid because she has to, and uses thralls for anything public.” Eugene’s voice stumbled. His Cursed had milked his soul for months until I rescued him. “Which isn’t terrifying at all.”
I shuddered at the memory of my own enthrallment. My eyes drifted to the background image on my tablet, a photo of me and Helen at the beach. The picture froze us before I left for war, before she changed into the thing I had destroyed. Her skin held faint wrinkles and blemishes her transformation had erased, and her deep brown eyes were clear of the malice and lust that the Curse had devoured. Her beauty as a succubus had been unearthly, consuming, yet nothing close to that of the woman I had married.
I had changed as much as she since that picture. My reflection in the screen’s surface loomed wraithlike over my younger self, from a past more distant than four years would warrant. My hair was thick and vibrant instead of shaved and thinning. Face clean of stubble, fuller, eyes yet untouched by the horrors wrought by the demons I destroyed. Innocent of the months of demonic enthrallment and years of addiction to dull the memory of her euphoria.
“So, why go for this Cursed in Seattle?” Eugene said. A jeweled silver goblet now glittered in the knight’s hand, accompanied by the gurgle of a soda can and a rumbling belch. “I’m pretty sure we’re not out of demons over here.”
I closed my eyes. “Tricia Praest fed on my wife’s soul and let her become a demon. She Cursed my wife.”
Eugene’s avatar blinked. “Holy crap.”
“The succubus at Rothschild manor knew Praest was in Seattle.”
He cocked his helmeted head. “That’s random. Do all sex demons just know each other?”
“Random or not, she knew where Praest was. I can’t ignore her.”
“Beg to differ, bro, but you can. You should. I know how you work. You find, you watch, you plan, you destroy. None of which you’re doing here. You don’t run off on half-baked quests for vengeance.”
“She started it all. I destroyed Helen because of her.”
“Do you even have a plan how to find her? Or destroy her once you do?”
“Beheading and fire always work. As for finding her….”
I had been chewing on that problem since leaving the manor, but my voice trailed off before I could answer.
“Someone is watching me,” I said.
Eugene snorted. “Maybe because you’re drinking all the vodkas and talking demons with a medieval warrior.”
“It’s more than that.” I sharpened my senses. Most of the time I blocked the thoughts of others out of necessity. I would go insane if I eavesdropped on every stray thought. But focused attention on me could still draw my attention.
There, two rows behind me in the opposite aisle. A man held an airline magazine, but his eyes weren’t looking at the pages. He was paying attention to me.
“This guy knows who I am,” I said. “And he’s following me.” His thoughts were indistinct, and I forced myself not to look back at him. But his intent was clear.
“Um.” The knight’s face crunched in consternation. “You realize that’s crazy. You found Praest totally by luck, booked a flight and got on a plane in less than a day, and someone is following you on that same flight?”
“Yeah, I know how weird it is. Weird is normal in this job. I’ll let you know what I find out.” I closed the connection before Eugene could respond and slipped the tablet into the seat pocket. I had to push aside several bottles to make room.
“Everyone on our left will see the spectacular Mount Rainier,” the captain said through the overhead speaker. “With the lovely spring weather in Seattle, the mountain won’t be out when we land in twenty minutes.”
Movement and chuckles filled the cabin. My pursuer’s attention shifted from me for a moment, and I stole a glance back at him. He was pale, nearly an albino, and hairless. His head shone like a veined and dimpled egg. No eyebrows, facial hair or eyelashes I could see. The gray ridges of long-healed scars traversed his full cheeks with neither the carelessness of violence nor the traces of medical treatment. His brown sweater and jeans hung over a tall, thin frame. He would tower over me by half a foot standing. The dawn light glowed from his skin as he stared out his window.
My connection to his thoughts sharpened as soon as I laid eyes on him. His mind took in the glowing red and purple sunlight thrown back by the ice-capped summit. I shuddered. The reds he saw tingled my skin. The roughness of the purples mixed with the silken warmth of the whites. Thoughts seldom came with more than the recollection of smells, tastes and sensations, but this man had synesthesia. What he saw stimulated all his other senses, and those sensations flowed into me through his thoughts. Experiencing the sensations directly from my pursuer’s mind was disconcerting.
A flight attendant’s voice replaced the captain’s. “In a few minutes we will start our descent. Please take a moment to stow your baggage and use the facilities before we turn on the fasten seat belts sign.”
He unfastened his belt and rose. With last-minute tickets, both of us were seated in the back of the plane. I waited a few moments for him to start toward the plane’s rear bathroom, then stood. The interior of the plane swayed as if drifting underwater, and I gripped the back of my seat. I waited for the vodka-induced vertigo to pass, then followed.
A handful of passengers were in the aisles stowing bags, and the attendants were picking up headsets and trash. I used them for cover as I followed, but the man never bothered to glance back. He had no reason to suspect he’d been spotted.
When his hand pushed against the accordion door to the lavatory, I moved. Behind him in two quick strides. Quick glance to confirm the rear galley of the plane was empty. Plenty of buffer from sound and view. Palm against the back of his smooth head, a crack as I smashed it against the edge of the sink. He groaned and went limp. I pressed his bleeding head to the mirror and pulled the door shut behind us. Thick smells of urine and feces hung in the lavatory after six hours of use.
His pale eyes stared back at me in the mirror with surprise, but not fear. The sight of me smelled like curdled milk, which for a moment drowned out the stench of excrement.
His mind showed military discipline as he tried to sort out how I had spotted his tail. I wrenched his arm back in a hammerlock and kept his face crushed to the mirror. Pain scattered his thoughts, then a disturbing glow of enjoyment at the agony.
“You’re following me,” I growled in his ear. “Who are you?”
He tried to pull free but had no space to move. His lip quivered. “Not many can tell when I follow.” His soft voice was strained, but in a way that could have either pleasure or pain. The English carried only a thin Eastern European accent despite its lack of fluency.
The name sprung into his mind regardless. “Jesper Hoodjink,” I said. “Why are you following me?”
Jesper tensed again at the mention of his name, but his composure quickly returned. “I don’t expect you to be able to stand with all the drinks, Mr. Decker.”
I barely heard his reply through his rush of discordant thoughts. Ursula Filitov had him follow me. Thin to the point of malnourishment, with piercings, tattoos and artistic scarring across her body. The left half of her head was shaved bald, the right half a platinum curtain draping over her face. Her intense blue eyes shone from the depths of sunken sockets.
I had never seen or heard of her before.
“Who is Ursula?” I asked. “Is she following me for Tricia Praest?”
His mind stumbled on the name Praest. But his body turned rigid at Filitov’s name. “Ursula does not fear you. Nor do I.”
I ignored his bravado and wrenched his arm back harder. “Why are you following me?” I repeated.
He might have answered with words. His mind screamed the answer unhindered. Pain. Torture of every kind. Misery that under her hand was the ecstasy she paid him with. All while she leeched away his soul.
I swore at myself for the question. I needed to know why Ursula wanted me followed, not why Jesper obeyed her. But I stopped to digest the current of memories flowing from him.
“Ursula is a Cursed,” I said. “And you’re her thrall.”
He struggled against my grip. “You are seeing my thoughts,” he said. “You are demon to do these things.”
I clicked my tongue. “If I were a demon, you would be dead right now. They don’t bother to ask-”
For a moment I thought Ursula again sprung to his mind, but instead it was a man. Eyes golden, body broad and muscular, clean-faced with long unshaven hair, but in every other way a masculine duplicate of Ursula. Jealousy swathed Jesper’s thoughts of this one. Vasily.
“What does Vasily have to do with this? Why does Ursula care about me?”
The answers began to coalesce in his mind, but his terror at what I was doing drowned it out. He pulled his free arm up enough to press it against the mirror and slide his sweater back from the shirt underneath. A rough strip of wine-colored cloth with intricate geometric designs was sewn at the cuff Holy Christ agony at the sight of it I jerked away and withdrew from his mind.
Sweat beaded over his brow as he stared at the cloth. His expression froze in a disturbing mix of giddiness and agony.
“Quick thinking,” I said. “That’s not the only way to interrogate you, though.”
A bell rang through the cabin, followed by the voice of the flight attendant. “We are starting our descent….”
“Can you interrogate before we land?” Jesper said through teeth clamped together. Despite the pain of my arm lock and his synesthesia, a macabre smile spread across his thin lips. The agony must be luxurious for him.
“I have everything I need for now.” I released his arm and pulled the lavatory door open. The galley was still empty. “Let’s chat again. I’m staying at the Four Seasons, since you want to keep an eye on me.” I tugged a paper hand towel free from the dispenser and pressed it against his bleeding head, then turned away before I let my mind chew on the implications of what I’d found.
I returned to my seat and pulled my tablet out of the seat pocket. My hands trembled, and the need to land, to score, to dose, started to rumble again. Damn it. I tried to ignore the urge, ignore Jesper and the glares from the attendants as I typed in a last message to Eugene before shutting down.
“Ursula and Vasily Filitov. Everything you can find.”
(c) 2015 by William Reid Schmadeka, all rights reserved