Chapter Three (first draft)

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This is my first draft of Hunters Chapter Three for comparison, and for an example of the extent of changes during the editing process.

As the first introduction to Garrison, I felt it started too slowly. I also added an additional Cursed to deal with in future drafts to better show the difference between types of Cursed. You can check out the current version of Chapter Three here.

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Chapter Three

The Telepath

 

The worn flask felt warm and comfortable in my gloved hands. It had been my constant companion through miles and years and wars, and my fingers traced the stories held in every dent. The vodka within, just as warm and comfortable, but the past dimmed with each swallow, an amnesia as fleeting as the heat it brought. Watered down, the vodka aroused my thirst more than quenched it. Still I stopped while it remained half full. Even the predawn cold and the sour bromide aftertaste on my tongue couldn’t justify draining it.

I knew I would need the rest once I was done here.

A patina of ice glittered over the bronze R on the carved double doors in front of me. I pulled my coat tighter around my throat and shivered in the chill. Rough cement lions, covered by a carpet of frost-brittle leaves, flanked the long low steps leading to the doors. I knew from Lilly that a multitude of entrances existed to the upstate manor, but all were heavily secured. Not unbreakable, but a time waster. Better to be welcomed in.

The doors swung open. I couldn’t see what lay past the hulking man who opened them. Eduardo. His bleached hair and eyebrows made his mahogany skin all the darker. Tattoos peeked from under his collar and cuffs. He moved with a deliberate grace that belied his size, of a height with me but with fifty pounds more muscle.

“Mister Decker,” he said, in a voice an octave higher than I expected. “Lady Rothchild isn’t expecting you.”

Brazilian accent, which explained the capoeira training. Eduardo was not employed based on any butlery skill. I plucked other details – number and general location of security, basic layout – that were on the surface of his thoughts in case I caused problems.

I smiled and took off my cap. I felt steam curl off my bald scalp. “I’m sorry to call so early, but can I speak with Lilly? It’s urgent.””

“Lady Rothchild does not entertain visitors without an appointment, even at a sensible hour,” Eduardo said. His mind blossomed with images of the doors to Lilly’s study. He had never been inside, but she was there now, and seldom left when home. As far as he knew, she never slept.

The other two members of the Rothchild family had equally inexplicable eccentricities, though I already knew what I was up against from Lilly’s thoughts.

Eduardo started to close the doors, but his eyes lost focus as he listened to his earpiece. His expression changed, as if any concern over my presence had evaporated. He nodded once and swung the doors wide.

“Lady Rothchild will see you. She is waiting for you on the balcony landing.”

He stepped aside to reveal an elegant foyer. The intricate marble floor, inset with a coat of arms and another stylized R, reflected a cascade of light from the chandelier overhead. Two broad staircases swept up to the overlooking balcony. The still air was warm and smelled like leather and old books.

I hung my satchel on the coat rack beside the door, clicking the locks as I did so, and walked toward the stairs. My footfalls resounded on the marble. Eduardo’s eyes followed me the whole way. He was accustomed to people showing up to see his employers at odd hours, and he assumed that I, like many guests, would quite possibly never leave.

Poor guy had no idea what he was part of.

Lilly stood at her open door when I reached the landing. Slim, auburn hair pulled back in a bun, face ageless and smooth. She wore a crisp gray business suit with a light blue blouse at four in the morning, with a microphone at her lapel to summon staff at any need.

“Garrison,” she said. “Our next session is not for six hours. And I do own a phone.”

Her voice held the lazy southeastern accent I knew well from my childhood, and held no displeasure at seeing me.

“I prefer to do business in person,” I answered, letting the same easy drawl touch my words. “And the opportunity you alluded to sounded far too lucrative to pass up.””

“I thought that might be what drove you here.” She smiled and gestured for me to follow her into her study. “Money never rests, does it?””

I could feel her hunger crash in waves, nothing like I’d sensed in our sessions. She had been feeding, and cradled the thought that she already had me. I fingered the metal loop on the inside of my jacket. I needed a minute more, at least.

Her study looked out over the frozen grounds of the estate, shadowed blue and gray in the cold dawn. Decadence draped the room, illuminated by lamps and a flickering fireplace. An antique and well-stocked bar spread below oil paintings that would break millionaires. Her massive cherry desk held no paper, pens or a computer, just a desk lamp and an ancient wooden globe. Greek statues stood vigil in the recesses. The only nod to technology glowed on the wall behind the desk, a massive screen that tracked the indices of every market on the planet.

Light crept from under the solitary door opposite the desk, muting murmurs and the clack of keyboards.

“What is it you want, Doctor?” She said. “What do you desire?”

“A glass of your Balvenie Fifty.”

She chuckled and gestured toward the bar. “I feel you’re thinking a little too literally.”

“Not at all. I seldom get fifty-year-old scotch.” I filled a rocks glass with two fingers and swirled it under my nose. “This would set me back six grand.””

“Six thousand dollars is nothing. What is it you really desire?”

“To hear more about the opportunity you mentioned in our therapy sessions.” I took a sip and let the flavors explode on my tongue. It was the first thing that managed to cut through the bitter taste of the anti-nerve agent that clung to my throat. ““This is good.”

“I should hope. You’re dancing around the question.” She leaned against her desk and crossed her arms, regarding me. “The investment requires one million initially.”

“I would have to liquefy everything I own. That’s quite a risk.”

“We both know that’s not true.” Her lips curled into a smirk. “You could pay for it all if you cashed your wife’s life insurance policy.”

The hook. I grimaced as I touched the bump of my wedding band under my glove. “How did you know that?”

“It’s my business to know. You could come up with the money quite easily.” She took a step toward me. “And you would never again want for anything.”

The nearer she came, the more real the temptation became. Mansions, women, cars, jets, drugs, every vice imaginable. It could all be mine.

“It’s been two years,” Lilly whispered. “Whatever your reasons, they don’t matter. What is it that you most desire, Garrison? Anything could be yours. Everything.”

I shot a blatant glance at the door opposite. Her eyes stayed on me, but her thoughts went right where I wanted them to. Laptops manned by empty-faced men and women, wasting in their endless pursuit of wealth, draining family savings and sacrificing friends in pursuit of one more million. One more dollar. One more penny. Their avarice sated Lilly’s hunger, so she was free to cultivate other more difficult – and satisfying – manifestations at her leisure.

The keyboards had stopped clacking.

I smiled at her, my clenched teeth betraying my anger. “I want my wife back, bitch.”

Lilly took a step back in surprise. She watched me with her dark eyes, calculating, severe. Her mind scrambled, unsure why I was there. What I intended to do.

“Eduardo,” she said into her lapel, “send in my uncle and aunt if you would be so kind.”

She waited a beat for a reply. Her brow furrowed.

“Eduardo.”

She shoved past me out the door of the study, and stopped at the edge of the balcony. In the center of the marble floor, highlighted by a sea of reflected light, lay the prone body of Eduardo.

I ripped the garrote wire free from my jacket lining and charged her. She had just started to turn when I looped it around her neck. She tried to scream and choked on her own blood. I planted my knee in the small of her back, pressing her against the marble balcony rail. A red fog sprayed out from her neck.

“Tell my wife Helen that I will avenge her, demon.”

I sawed the garrote back and forth. Lilly struggled, gurgled, went limp. The wire snapped free. Lilly’s head, a twisted and horned green reflection of its human guise, rebounded off the marble below before disintegrating in a smear of ash. Her body crumpled, imploded.

The nerve agent in my satchel would have dispersed through the entire mansion by now. I pulled out my pistol – a refurbished LeMat Confederacy revolver – and backed into Lilly’s study. Everyone here would be unconscious except for me and the two demons that still remained.

I had never taken on more than one demon at a time. They seldom worked, let alone lived, together, especially not ones of different types. But these three came from the same corrupt mortal family. Lilly was the youngest, untrained in fighting and new to her powers. Neither of the remaining would be as simple.

Angus Rothchild was a sadistic rage demon. Lilly had been terrified of him, even after her transformation. The Carolina slave master was the eldest of the clan, and might have been the patriarch if his grandniece Aissa didn’t control him.

I knew intimately well the power a succubus could wield. I touched my flask, then frowned and left it in my pocket. After.

Stillness and silence draped the mansion. From behind me, a grandfather clock beat its steady rhythm. I breathed the warm air, forcing my heart to match time with the clock, and edged toward the doorway. Back against the doorjamb, I darted my head out onto the balcony to make sure the floor was still clear.

Hands the size of turkeys clamped the sides of my head and dragged me out of the study. A nightmare Colonel Sanders with baleful eyes stared at me as I dangled in his grasp. Then he threw me. My stomach crashed into the balcony rail and I cartwheeled over. Floor rushed at me. Instinct kicked in. I tucked and rolled and tumbled onto my back. My flattened lungs refused to drag in breath. I lurched to my knees and grabbed for my pistol as it skidded across the floor.

Angus smashed into the marble in front of me. His white hair and moustaches glowed stark against skin the color of hot coals. Two wicked horns twisted up from his temples.

I finally managed a trembling breath. I raised my pistol, trained it on the demon’s chest, then dropped it and gasped. I collapsed to all fours as a wave of euphoria clenched my midsection.

“Why, you do not want to fight at all, do you?” A soft voice whispered in my ear. “I hardly had to try.”

I kept gulping air, trying to will my sluggish limbs to respond through the afterglow haze.

“He beheaded Lilly!” Angus snarled. His Appalachian twang was so thick I had trouble understanding it.

“You would have done that anyway, like you’ve done to all of the rest but me.”

I made a clumsy swipe for my pistol. Then another orgasm seized me, more powerful than the first. I felt cool marble against my cheek as I writhed.

“Stop it, you harlot!” I felt the floor rumble as Angus neared me. A constant growl churned from the depths of his barrel chest. “I’’m gonna kill him.”

“Oh, Angus. This doesn’t mean you don’t get yours.”

The rumble of the floor stopped, the growl changed to a soft mewl.

Aissa crouched over me. Her creamy bronze hair, the same color as her eyes, cascaded down in graceful curls to her shoulders. The light passed through her gossamer white gown to reveal her slender body, her delicate curves, her tattoos and piercings.

“I can make him come as easily as I can you, old man.” She laid a smooth, cool hand on the side of my face. “You’ve been the minion of a Cursed before, haven’t you?”

My mind screamed for me to pull away before she killed me, to grab my gun and shoot her in her lovely face. My lips brushed her palm, tasted her silken flesh as I raised myself toward her.

“Do you want another?” She cooed. Her lips were the color of raspberries. “Those were so rushed. So… weak.”

No, God no, get away from me. No words escaped my lips.

She patted my cheek. “Not yet. You did kill my niece. Angus will make you pay for that. But I want you to enjoy every minute of agony.” She leaned closer, curling her finger under my chin. “I want to make you beg for every minute of it.”

Our lips touched, first a casual brush, then deeper, my arms were around her and rapture filled me until her mouth became bitter ash. She screeched and tore herself away from me.

“What did you do?” She shrieked. Smoke belched from the blistered skin around her mouth, her skin now black with fiery red cracks and hair a mane of flame. Her talons clawed at her sizzling lips.

I ground my teeth together in fury. Emotions seethed through me in a torrent. I saw what she wanted to do to me. I saw my own weakness through her eyes. I felt disgust at my own vulnerability. At least in my haze I had managed enough self-control to grab my gun.

Most infuriating of all, I saw Her in Aissa’s mind. The one who corrupted Aissa. The same one who corrupted Helen.

The pocket of my jacket ripped as I tore the vials of holy water free. I mixed enough of it with my vodka that my urine would consecrate any toilet I used for a week. Before I could lose my determination, I hurled the vials at Aissa.

They shattered against her skin, fried like napalm. Shards of chandelier rained down on us, shattered by her shriek. Light flickered and died. She twirled and collapsed and bucked on the ground and dissolved into a smoldering heap.

Angus smashed into me like a boulder. His momentum carried us across the room, crashing into the far wall.

The demon could barely make a coherent sound. He clamped his meaty hands around my head and squeezed.

I fired the shotgun barrel of the LeMat, inches from his heart, loaded with rock salt.

The pressure on my head disappeared. Angus stared stupidly at the burning crater in the center of his chest, where his heart should be. His body shattered like leaves as he toppled to the ground.

I stood trembling in the again silent mansion. The pistol dangled from my limp hand. Sweat drenched my face, my clothes. I fumbled the flask out of my pocket and drained the last of the holy vodka in one long swallow. The horror never left.

On shaking legs I walked up the stairs to the balcony, back into Lilly’s open study. I took the Balvenie Fifty from the bar, not bothering with a glass, and collapsed into the leather chair behind the desk.

Lilly had shown me the existence of three demons, and their weaknesses. In my arrogance I thought I could destroy all three, but one succubus had brought me to my knees.

While showing me the one demon I had been hunting since my wife was taken from me.

I swallowed deeply from the bottle, but a gnawing need had grown since Aissa’s touch. The same insatiable need that had plagued me since Helen’s corruption, the need I could never satisfy. My hand went for my inner pocket. Empty. For an instant, panic gripped me, then I remembered I left my works kit at home when on missions. With everyone in the mansion waking up within the hour, I couldn’t dose here and risk capture.

But there was one thing I had to do, while the images from Aissa’s memory were still fresh. Taking another pull of scotch, I slipped the wrinkled slip of paper I kept always close to my heart and smoothed it out on the desk.

I had updated and redone the charcoal drawing countless times over the years, every time I saw her more clearly in a thought or more precisely in a memory. The demon had hung ephemeral since Helen, appearing in memories when I least expected it. And my rendition was all I had to go on.

Aissa had given me the piece that might lead me to the end of my journey.

The scotch had steadied my hand enough for me to draw in the simple wooden cross that hung around her neck, and sketch the faint outline of the Space Needle overshadowing her.

I’ve looked for you for two years, I whispered as I stared at her striking burgundy eyes. The one that destroyed my world, the one that took everything from me. And now I knew where you were.

I am going to destroy you, Tricia Priest, and finally, truly, avenge my wife.

Amp Up Your Conflict Three: Don’t Forget The Flipside

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Amp Up Your Conflict Three: Don’t Forget The Flipside

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Any narrative you write always has two stories it’s telling: the story of your protagonist(s), and the story of your antagonist as well.

A good antagonist thinks they are the hero of your story. Their motivations should make sense to them (and eventually the reader) and their actions, in their minds at least, should be the right thing to do. This still gives you depth to make them as evil or depraved as you need, but they should never do anything just because it’s evil or because it furthers your plot.

A well developed antagonist like this gives you as author tremendous opportunity to amp up tension – by throwing your antagonist some difficulty. Remember, most events in your plot are going to go the antagonist’s way. But that doesn’t mean they can’t suffer some setbacks of their own.

You can use these conflicts (a rebellious employee, or a past jilted lover) to give opportunity to your protagonists. Or you can also use them to build some sympathy for your antagonist, which adds depth to your narrative. Think Cersei from Game of Thrones. In every way she’s an antagonist, but when she’s captured and ridiculed, we feel for her. Not enough to forgive her of her past actions, and perhaps mostly satisfaction that she got what was coming to her, but at some level we have sympathy. Now our feelings toward her are more complex.

Every story has a flipside. Don’t forget that side when you’re looking to amp up your story’s conflict.

Amp Up Your Conflict One: Give Your Secondaries a Crisis

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All stories need conflict. It’s what keeps your protagonists developing, your characters on their toes and your readers on the edge of their seats. Conflict doesn’t have to be big or world-changing; anything that presents your characters with a challenge or drives your narrative forward qualifies, no matter the size.

In my next writing advice series, we’ll discuss ways you can amp up the conflict in any story so you keep your readers hooked and your characters dynamic.

Amp Up Your Conflict One: Give Your Secondaries a Crisis

 

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I would wash the Batmobile, Master Bruce, but I have a colonoscopy this afternoon. Long story. Regrettably, you will have to chase the Penguin with a soiled vehicle.

All your characters have backstories. From your protagonist to the clerk at the corner store, everyone has a story. Moreover, they have lives. Life is happening to everybody.

This doesn’t mean you need to know everyone’s backstories in detail, or that their life crises will add depth and conflict to your narrative. But a great way to shake up a slow section of your story, or add complication to an existing conflict, is to throw a curveball at a supporting character.

Say your protagonist is a devoted Catholic looking for moral support from his priest before he makes a rash decision. Have the priest accused of embezzling from the church. Your high-powered attorney is preparing for the big case of her career, but her paralegal starts to fall apart when his pregnant wife is hospitalized. In both of these examples, the ramifications for your protagonist make an already tense situation that much harder.

Conflict doesn’t have to come to your main characters exclusively. Conflict happens to everyone and can be used to heighten tension in your narrative. It may even take your story in new directions. Just remember that you don’t have to make life suck for just your protagonist. You have a whole world of characters whose lives you can make worse for the sake of your story.

Why I Fall In Love With a Manuscript: Conflict

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Why I Fall In Love With a Manuscript 4: Conflict 

You have conflict. Lots and lots of conflict.

unnamed (3)Conflict is drama. If your story has conflict, it adds the spice that any love affair needs.

Stories don’t have to start with fist fights or space battles. Conflict can be as big as finding love in a civil war or as small as choosing the right ring to propose with. It can be as fast as a car crash or as slow as the new valet showing up with a limp.

But those are really situations, not conflict. The most important element of conflict is that it involves characters. Even in a pitched space battle, I care about R2-D2 and C-3PO. Conflict is personal, and conflict involves characters I care about. If you lose the characters I root for, the conflict loses its power. Now it’s just noise and confusion.

Something has to happen in your story, and it has to happen fast. Don’t waste time setting up the scene or characters before you dive into the meat of the tale. Stories I love start as close to the initial crisis as possible with characters I care about and let things spiral downhill from there. If you never let up on the conflict, and you make it personal, I won’t be able to put your manuscript down.

Why I Fall In Love With a Manuscript: Your Characters Breathe

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Why I Fall In Love With a Manuscript 3: Your Characters Breathe

Unless, of course, they happen to literally be suffocating.

When I hear your characters’ voices in what they say and see them in what they do, I can’t help but fall in love.

Characters need strong identities. As an editor, I need a sense of who they are early on. I need to see their personalities in their actions and speech. Dialogue should be so personal no other character could say it, and actions so unique only one character would react that way.

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This is where good preparation comes in. Characters are like icebergs. We only see ten percent of them above the water, but we can sense the ninety percent below that moves them. A character’s background informs what they know, how they speak, and how they react to situations. Remember all that work you put into backstory but never got to tell us? This is the part of the iceberg that shows through. Say your character walks by a homeless man on the street. Did your character grow up poor, or was she raised demonizing the homeless? Did she grow up in a military home, which explains why she gave a homeless veteran money while she passed by a dozen others? With one simple encounter, her actions and words reveal her character and make her feel real and alive.

Another often overlooked element that brings life and dimension to characters is the little nuances, the nervous ticks and dialogue tags the character has. Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight is one of the finest acting performances in years. So many elements went in to his character, but the most important pieces might have been the most minor. He made the Joker real by constantly flicking his tongue out and licking his lips. Playing with his ratty, greasy hair. Moving his hands in a subconscious, jittery flow. All of these nuances added to the chaotic insanity of the character.

THE DARK KNIGHT, Heath Ledger as The Joker, 2008. ©Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

THE DARK KNIGHT, Heath Ledger as The Joker, 2008. ©Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

Be sure to add these details to your own characters to reinforce their personalities. Maybe your protagonist chews his fingernails to the quick, plays with the brim of his hat, strokes the edge of his chin or jogs his leg when he’s sitting. Perhaps he runs his hands along everything he encounters or doesn’t look directly at anyone when he talks. These elements are small, maybe a few words of description here and there, but these small, unique quirks speak volumes.

Take a great character (say, Sherlock Holmes) and analyze him. Would any of Sherlock’s dialogue or actions feel comfortable coming from John Watson or Moriarty? Would any of his actions? Of course not. Make sure your characters are just as alive.

Why I Fall In Love With a Manuscript: You Cut The Backstory

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Why I Fall In Love With a Manuscript 2: You Cut the Backstory

I don’t need backstory. I don’t want it. Neither will your readers.

It’s crucial for you, the author, to know your subjects and backstory better than anyone. But writing isn’t a test. You don’t need to show your work. Manuscripts I love respect my intelligence and don’t patronize me by feeding me backstory.

There are a lot of things I don’t need to know in order to enjoy a tale. Show me what’s happening. Know it doesn’t matter to me that your protagonist graduated first in her class from Harvard in 2005 and is an expert on North African Pre-Egyptian fossils, which her dead but much-loved grandfather inspired her to study. Show her in action and I know she’s an expert. Keep my interest by leaving her history unsaid until it’s pertinent.

The backstory rule also applies to historical, technical and mythical/magical information. You as a writer need to know every detail of pertinent information for your tale. If your story takes place in the Ottoman Empire in the thick of World War I, you better do your historical research, and probably study the military hardware of the time too. If you’re writing a speculative fiction piece, you need to know how the warp drive your ships use and the phasers your ships fire work. But after doing all your research or technical development, it’s tempting to tell it all as soon as something is referenced.

Don’t do it.

Here you need to know the target audience for your work a little bit. Some historical fiction readers want to get deeper in the historical weeds, and some science fiction readers want to go further under the hood. But ultimately the important thing for the reader is what these items do, not how they do it, or how life is during the time period, not how it got that way. You as author need to know these things so you can add background detail, explain when necessary, and, above all, avoid inconsistencies. Even if a reader doesn’t understand the technology or history, he or she will spot an inconsistency immediately. (“I have no idea how shields or transporters work, but I thought you couldn’t use a transporter through shields!”)

Too many times a good manuscript goes off the rails when the author starts to dump in backstory about characters, history or technology. It slows the narrative to a crawl, and most of the information I don’t need. Accept that I, and your readers, will appreciate your exhaustive research and backstory without needing to know it.

 

Hunters: Chapter Five

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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.

Hunters

Previous chapters can be found on the Hunters page.

 

Chapter Five

Compare the latest version with the first draft here!

Garrison

 

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.

“A few.”

“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.”

 

Continue to Chapter Six

 

(c) 2015 by William Reid Schmadeka, all rights reserved