Authors: Marcus Pelegrimas
Tags: #Fantasy, #Horror, #Occult & Supernatural, #Contemporary, #Fiction
“This is a big city, not some stretch of prairie like you’re used to.”
“Chicago’s a stretch of prairie? What the hell’s wrong with you? Take your hands off me, Selina!”
The blonde had grabbed Cole by the arm and pulled him back. After letting him go, she turned to Abel and said, “This isn’t the place to talk about our business.”
Following her line of sight, Cole saw that Madman 69 and his other buddies had plopped into lawn chairs on their porch and were cracking open a fresh round of drinks. All of the Skinners stomped inside and slammed the door shut. The house was protected and cloaked by a series of runes etched into the walls, but Cole only knew three men who could use them with any degree of accuracy. Lancroft was at the top of the list, but he was dead. Ned Post used similar runes to protect his home in St. Louis, but he was also dead. That left Rico. Unfortunately, he’d gone his own way soon after Lancroft had been dealt with. Before leaving, he’d shown several of the remaining Skinners how to activate or deactivate the runes cloaking the door to the basement. Since the rest of the angular markings were more complicated than glorified switches, everyone just left them alone.
For the moment, the door to the basement was just as
visible as any other. Beyond it, a cement stairwell led down to a workshop filled with benches and several sets of tools. The grisly works in progress Lancroft had left behind were all gone, leaving only the scent of rotten meat and burnt leather to mark their passing. Skinners from across the country had been coming to look at Lancroft’s place over the last several days and were taking as much of the old man’s belongings as they could carry. Supplies it took months or years to find in the field could be found in neat stacks of old mason jars and tool boxes. Lancroft even had racks of handcrafted weapons, some of which still bore bloodstains from their previous owners upon the handles’ thorns. Cole didn’t even know there were so many Skinners to be found, and with a pulse of green light from the next room accented by the scent of freshly cut trees, more arrived from parts unknown.
Stepping into the next room, he was always happy to watch the Dryads at work. Based in clubs around the country, the nymphs had been sticking to their word and allowing Skinners to use their temples as a means of transportation. They resisted parting with the knowledge of exactly how the process worked, but that was fine by him. Sometimes it was nice to just sit back and enjoy the show.
The man who emerged from the enchanted room’s glowing beaded curtain didn’t seem at all concerned with the miracle of being teleported by mythological strippers. Somehow, even the faint whiff of expensive body spray following him through his end of the bridge wasn’t enough to brighten the man’s mood. “What the fuck is this that I hear about the Full Blood going missing?”
He was a bulky man in shredded jeans, scuffed boots, and a simple black work shirt that looked as if it had been stolen from a mechanic. The hand he raised was so scarred that it could very well have been sewn onto his wrist after Frankenstein’s monster was through with it. “You,” he said, while aiming a callused finger at Cole. “Are you one of them from Chicago?”
“Yeah,” Paige said as she stepped out of a small, brightly lit room where Lancroft had cut Henry into the chunks Cole
so recently buried. “And I’m the other one.”
Paige hadn’t stepped foot out of the basement for more than an hour or two over the last several days, and it showed. Her skin was pale. Dark circles ringed her eyes and her newly sheared hair hung limply around her face. “What are you doing here, Jessup? Didn’t I just tell you there’s nothing to see that your little trainees hadn’t already seen?”
The phone still clutched in Jessup’s other fist looked like a toy that was about to be broken into pieces. Stuffing it into his pocket, he stepped away from the curtain of shimmering beads and glanced over both of his shoulders. What he saw was a large room with walls covered in flowing Dryad script. Behind him were the women whose song had created the bridge connecting one temple to another. Now that they were done singing, the ridiculously beautiful nymphs strutted out of the basement for some fresh air. Having already encountered the loudmouth neighbors, they knew well enough to head to the poorly tended backyard.
“Where the hell are those broads going?” Jessup asked.
All of the people in the temple were riveted by the sight of the Dryads. Even though they normally wore something much more provocative than the sweats and baby doll shirts these two had on, they exuded raw femininity that reached down through every human sensory organ to caress the recipient from the inside out. Paige and Cole weren’t immune to the effect, but they’d felt it enough to know how to brace themselves.
Closing the distance between herself and Jessup with a few powerful strides, she reminded him, “The deal was for them to help us with transport when we needed it. Not act as a subway system with flights leaving every hour. They’re pushing it as it is to run everyone through their temples for as long as they have.”
“I had to go to some shithole club an hour’s drive from Helena.”
“And you won’t be able to return for another three hours.”
“Maybe I’ll stay. Looks like this place could use some real leadership.” Gritting his teeth, Jessup stalked toward Cole and growled, “What’s so goddamn funny?”
“You’ve had quite a day,” Cole said. “To Helena and back.”
Jessup gazed at him like Roosevelt looking down from Mount Rushmore.
In too deep to back out now, Cole asked, “You got any flying rodents in Montana or did they all fly away like bats out of—”
“Am I supposed to believe
Jonah Lancroft was taken down by you two?”
Paige nodded confidently to Jessup as she replied, “Yep. You can also believe that Boise was one of the cities hit hardest by Lancroft’s Mud Flu. According to his records, he was there to plant the virus himself.” She scratched her head, feeling one of the spots that had recently gotten a major trim. “Isn’t Idaho your territory?”
“And what about Wyoming?” Cole asked. “I’ve seen some videos on the net of some pretty bad Mongrel activity.”
Jessup stomped past Cole and Paige, waving them off like a cranky old fart dismissing the bells and whistles of modern technology. “Stuff that Web garbage up your asses where it came from. Let me get a look at this place.”
After he passed her, Paige was all smiles. She was still smiling when she wrapped an arm around Cole and led him to the far side of the room where there was a better chance of speaking in what would have to pass for privacy.
Cole ran his hand along the back of her head, feeling the hair cut drastically short to match the clump she’d been forced to hack off during her fight with Lancroft. From the back of her neck and up to the bump on the back of her skull, her black hair had been clipped to a soft bristle. The front and sides were still long, but in a long bob that swooped down to frame her cheeks like a set of wispy, inverted horns. Keeping his fingertips on the clipped portion in back, Cole said, “I like the new look. Feels goo—
Interrupted by a lock applied to his hand that turned it against his wrist in a very uncomfortable way, Cole was quickly reminded of one thing: the hair might have been different, but the woman beneath it was very much the same.
“Where’s that frickin’ body?” she snapped. Before Cole
could give so much as a peep in his defense, she tightened the lock and added, “And you should think verrrry carefully before you ask me ‘What body?’”
“Do we really want to discuss this now?” he whispered.
“Yes.” Paige let him go and marched back to the room with the workbenches. Jessup and several others shouted for her, but she ignored those tersely worded requests and went all the way up to the main floor of the house.
Cole followed behind her, doing his best not to return the stern glares coming from any number of Skinners sifting through the creations and unfinished projects that Lancroft had left behind. Upstairs, only one of the locals remained. As soon as they saw Paige and Cole emerge from the basement, Abel promptly turned his back on them and joined the rest of his crew outside.
Apart from the runes etched into the walls, there wasn’t much of anything to see on the main floor of the house. Furnishings were limited to a few folding chairs that had only recently been brought in and several coolers strewn around the kitchen.
“Told you we should’ve kept this place a secret,” Cole grumbled.
“We did for the first few days,” Paige replied. “After that, it was only a matter of time before Jory and those other two showed up.”
“Where the hell were they when Lancroft was here? If they’re supposed to be locals, how come we didn’t know about them until they came to grab this stuff?”
“Abel, Selina, and Jory broke contact with MEG about the same time that Gerald and Brad took their trip into Canada.”
No matter what Cole was thinking about, it was always wiped away when those names were mentioned. Gerald and Brad were the first Skinners he’d ever met, and they were ripped to shreds in front of him by a Full Blood he’d come to know as Mr. Burkis. Nothing had been the same after that.
“A lot of things could have happened between these Philly guys and MEG,” she continued. “Not all of us are as fond of the ghost guys as you are.” When she saw the look in Cole’s
eyes, Paige sighed and admitted, “Fine. As
are. The point is, this bunch isn’t the first to go off the grid. Selina says they were forced to go into hiding when some cops were getting close to putting them away.”
“What’d they do to get in trouble with the cops?”
“Their job, Cole. See, that’s the problem with being the only ones who know about things like Nymar. We see vampires while everyone else sees a bunch of strutting dickheads with smooth skin and black tattoos. Knocking around assholes like that isn’t exactly legal. Shooting them or injecting poison into their veins is most definitely frowned upon. The good news is that Selina claims to have made some friends in the Philadelphia PD after resolving their little problem. And speaking of a little problem, where’s that frickin’ body?”
Over the past few months, Cole had been acquiring many new skills. He was getting better with his weapon. He’d picked up on methods used to track creatures of the night. He could even fix mac and cheese in five exotic ways. Lying to Paige, on the other hand, wasn’t exactly a skill. It was a risk to life and limb.
“I buried it,” he said.
As one question piled on top of another, Paige’s face went through a series of contortions. The expression he’d least expected for her to settle on was calmness. As a surprise bonus, she actually smirked. “How the hell did you manage to get that thing out of here when everyone else was rummaging around?”
“I asked Prophet to help me wrap it up and carry it out after the last batch of looters were teleported out of here,” he admitted. “The nymphs only zap us around twice a day, so I waited for one of those times when most of the house was cleared out. Even the Philly crew drove away to get something to eat. When all the planets aligned, Prophet and I carried Henry out of here and drove him somewhere to be buried.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because you’ve had enough on your mind.” When he
said that, Cole glanced down at her right arm. After a particularly unsuccessful field test of the tattoo ink that still itched under his skin, Paige’s arm had been rendered close to useless. Her skin was still soft, but several discolorations that might have been internalized scars had begun appearing on the surface. Through a lot of hard work and base-level stubbornness, she’d moved beyond the need for a sling. Her arm was still stiff and gave her the occasional twitch of pain, which meant a lot if someone as hard-headed as Paige was doing the twitching.
Balling her right hand into a fist, she said, “Don’t give me that bullshit. You knew I’d tell you what a stupid fucking idea that was.”
“Yeah. Pretty much.”
“So where did you take him?”
“Aren’t you going to ask me why I took him?”
“No,” she snapped. “First tell me where.”
After a few seconds of deliberation Cole replied, “Nah. Everyone else seems to be able to do whatever they feel like no matter what, so now’s my turn. Some get to come in here and demand or just steal anything we fought and bled for. Fine. Others spend their time looking through every last bit of work that Lancroft did without so much as a thank-you to the ones who kept the old man from killing more people to spread his plague. I guess that’s supposed to be fine too. Those assholes across the street decide to come over and start their shit? Whatever. They might as well, right?”
“Cole, things are just crazy right now.”
“They haven’t been any other way since I can remember!” Lowering his voice and stepping closer to her, he placed a hand on Paige’s arm and rubbed the smooth lines of muscle beneath her skin. “When can we get some time for just … you and me?”
“Seriously?” she asked. “With everything happening, all these people driving in, some of them
in from all over the place, and all you can think about is getting quality time with me?”
“Is that so bad? Seems like we could both use something to loosen the tension.”
Once again Paige’s expression took a turn that Cole hadn’t been expecting. “You’re right. We could use a stress reliever.”
“Really?” Cole gasped. “I bet nobody would even miss us if we—”
“No, not that,” she said, casually dashing his highest hope.
Instead of answering his question, she walked out the front door and toward the street. Cole stayed close to her, noticing how the group of local Skinners halted their conversation and glared defiantly at them.
“What are you doing, Paige?”
“Tell me what we’ve been doing since the whole Lancroft thing,” she replied.
“It hasn’t been that long, but seems like a bunch of cataloguing and—”
“Nothing,” she snapped. “Just going through a dead man’s house and squabbling over his leftovers. Meanwhile, Jory and those other two waltz back in from wherever the hell they’ve been and all these other jackoffs come here after finding out from Lord knows who that there’s a shitload of buried treasure here. And how do they get here?”