The first half of Chapter Eight of Hunters! This is the longest chapter yet, almost double my previous chapters’ lengths. Tricia has confirmed Pastor Rosie is unharmed, and now she must find out if her insane master has truly returned for her.
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!
The street artist slashed his charcoal stub across the sheet with the precision of a swordsman. The breeze rustled fat raindrops from the trees overhead and they popped steadily against the umbrella that sheltered him. He sat back for a moment, rubbing his chin as he examined his work. His blackened fingers added to the streaks already bruising his face.
“Are you done?” I asked. The street lights around us were flickering to life in the encroaching dusk.
He picked up a pipe balanced on the rim of a cracked Bob Ross mug and held a lighter to the bowl. “With a slice like you, things like this can’t be rushed.” He took a deep drag, his voice squeaking as he held in the smoke.
I tugged a crumpled twenty from my jacket pocket and thrust it toward him.
“Or maybe they can.” His words washed a cloud of foul smoke over me. He stabbed a last few marks on the page, then whipped it from his easel. He handed it to me and took the bill in the same motion. “Suit yourself. Price is the same.”
I glanced at the drawing. As I had requested, the rendition was more realistic than his displayed selection of caricatures, though the exaggeration normally reserved for chins and noses was focused instead on my breasts and hips. The bruises across my face were nowhere to be seen. I had slept for hours after getting home, and the downtime had made more difference than I expected. I smoothed my tangled hair before folding the drawing into squares and slipping it in my back pocket. The artist winced but made no comment, filling the air around him with a nimbus of pot smoke.
The artist was blocks away from the Medical Examiner’s office, but he had put his station right along my path. Some compulsions were more powerful than even the matters pressing me.
It was full dark when I reached the glass and concrete office building with a large King County police shield on its doors. I searched the street to make sure no one was watching and snapped invisible.
At this hour the lobby was empty except for two security guards, one watching the nightly news and the other reading a tattered novel. The one at the television looked up as the doors opened on their own, followed by a breath of cool wind. He grunted and returned his attention to the program. I walked around the metal detector, scanned the display of the building’s offices and floors next to the elevator, and found the King County Medical Examiner. Both guards glanced when the elevator chimed and opened, but lost interest when they saw it empty. I was used to people, even guards, giving little heed to doors and elevators misbehaving.
Getting in the building was never going to be the problem, anyway. My guts churned as I went through my options for getting inside. For decades I had obeyed a self-imposed vow never to use my powers on innocents. That Hinge was formidable enough a threat to make me consider softening my moral resolve was troubling.
I dropped my invisibility as the elevator doors opened. The click of my boots on the laminate roused the man behind the desk. He closed his laptop and pushed his bifocals down, clinging to me with his gaze.
“Can I help you, miss?” He straightened his green smock to hide the paunch it did little to conceal. A fringe of gray hair ringed his glistening pate. His nametag said Grayson. He had yet to look me in the eye. “Are you lost?”
“No.” I stopped at the edge of his desk. “I’m looking for someone.”
His eyes refused to lift from the curves of my body. He smiled broadly, displaying teeth stained by coffee. The indent of a wedding ring stood out on his finger. His nails were chewed down to the skin.
“I’d say you found someone,” he said.
Sweat gathered on his upper lip, stirring to life the sickening spice of his cologne. Desire already held him in its grip and I had done nothing proactive. I could brush my fingers against his cheek, stare into his eyes, and with the slightest effort crumple his will with my Cursed allure. It would be that simple to get what I wanted.
Instead I took a step away. The fact that he was an old, lonely man might be just as effective as using my demonic powers. I nodded at the examination room doors behind him. “I’m afraid a friend of mine might be here.”
Grayson looked up. Our eyes finally met. “We would have notified the family if-”
“I’m actually looking for many people,” I clarified. “I just need to see the bodies. Or see that they aren’t here.”
A look of apprehension displaced the desire in his gaze. The change unsettled me. “Who are you looking for?”
I pushed a hundred dollar bill across the desk toward him. It was the last cash I had, but it was worth the expense. My next kill had better be loaded. “Have any unidentified teenagers died recently?”
Grayson glanced down at the bill, then back up. His face solidified into a grim cast that unsettled me even more, as if whatever worried him had been confirmed. “Are you a reporter?”
I shook my head.
He looked uneasily down at the money, then back at me. Again his eyes fogged as he stared, clouded as much with desire as a sudden dissipation of his concerns. It seemed as if his worries no longer mattered somehow. “You look too young, anyway.” He stuffed the bill in his pocket and motioned for me to follow him through the double doors behind the desk.
I pushed through the doors in his wake. Florescent lights arced from the gleaming floor and cabinets of the room. I paused for a moment, staring at the multitude of warped reflections in the stainless steel surfaces. I could only hope he didn’t notice anything. I took a step into the room, then stopped. The doors swung back on me and I stumbled forward.
Six corpses in the middle of examinations rested on autopsy tables lined at the room’s center. Grayson did a circuit around the room as I stared. Casters rolled and metal scraped as he pulled out at least as many more body drawers with similar corpses occupying each one. All of them cold, gray, undamaged but for the autopsy incisions.
Bodies just embraced by the transformation of puberty. None over thirteen at most. Bodies not just dead, but empty. Bodies ripped of their souls.
Fuck. The edges of my world started to crumble. The smell of antiseptics and Grayson’s cloying aftershave faded in the cold, dead air as they were swept aside by a scent I hadn’t smelled in decades.
Memory swelled. I could smell Hinge on all of them.
Grayson pulled out the last drawer and gestured at the room with an air of futility. “All of them John and Jane Does.” He gnawed at the nail of his middle finger. “If you know any of them, we could use some help identifying them.”
I stared at him. So many young, unidentified bodies did not seem to concern him in the least. Hinge’s effect on memory and emotion were far too familiar, but they never spread from afar before, never lingered around places or objects. Just as his scent clung to the bodies, his Cursed powers clung enough to cloud the thoughts of those simply near them.
“When did this start?” I could barely form words.
Grayson shrugged. “A few weeks ago. Maybe a month. They’re from all over. These are just in King County.”
My body trembled. “It’s happening in other areas.”
“They have at least this many in Tacoma. A couple more in Snohomish.” He walked among the gurneys, his eyes darting from the bodies to me. “None with an apparent cause of death, no identification, no one asking about them. Weird.”
More than weird. Horrifying. I wanted to throttle him out of his complacency. At least twenty-four teenagers dead in a month. That was close to one a day. At worst I needed one soul a month.
Grayson did a double take. “God, no. Just whole bodies.”
Fuck. That either meant he was burning the worst to prevent them from rising as Cursed, or….
I stepped closer to the nearest body. She was the only one not yet scarred by an examination. Her blonde hair spilled down her shoulders and over the edge of the table. Acne concealed under makeup, breasts mere buds under the autopsy sheet, face peaceful in a death so thorough it left nothing of her behind. Even in death the faint but newly blossomed aroma of her was potent. Mixed with the dark, intoxicating scent of my old master.
A delicate golden cross lay askew at the hollow of her throat. It flashed in the colorless light above. I couldn’t tear my gaze from it as memories stirred, and the crush of bombs from decades past shattered the calm around me.
(c) 2015 by William Reid Schmadeka, all rights reserved