Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Urban  ➡  Satire

A Demon Lady

With Love

(A Demon’s Playground Novel)

 

 

By J. David Phillips

 

 

 

 

Copyright

Copyright 2017 by J. David Phillips

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used on any manner whatsoever without the express permission of the publisher except for quotations in a book review.

 

Printed and distributed as an ebook in the United States of America

 

First published, 2017

 

Summon The Wraiths

1116 Greenbay Rd.

Southport, NC 28461

Or correspondences can be sent to the author at:

[email protected]

 

Credits And Acknowledgements

First, to my family. My mother who instilled in me a love of reading. My father who paid for all of the books. My son who always provided me with more laughs as a child than I ever deserved. My daughter who always has been and always will be the first inhabitant of the Playground. Connie McCrummen, Rodney Hassler, and Ron Layne. These three people define what is best about our education system. Karen, who will forever be my very own infernal minion of darkness. And to the faculty, staff, and student body of South Brunswick High School and Middle School. You are beautiful. Shine on. All of you listed above.

 

Table Of Contents

 

Foreword

Chapter One: I Scream Of Genie

Chapter Two: Accountant Dracula

Chapter Three: Down Into Darkness

Chapter Four: What Is Normal Anyway?

Chapter Five: The Times That Try Men’s Voles

Chapter Six: God For Harry, England, And St. George

Chapter Seven: A Hearse Is A Hearse, Of Curse, Of Curse

Chapter Eight: Clean Up On Aisle One

Chapter Nine: Why It Sucks To Be A Succubus

Chapter Ten: Strange Things Go Bump In The Night

Chapter Eleven: Hyding In Plain Sight

Chapter Twelve: Like Bait On A Hook

Chapter Thirteen: Sometimes You Should Just Stay Inside

 

Foreword

 

There’s a place just on the other side of nightmares called the Playground. You probably haven’t heard of it unless you’re well off, a powerful magic user, or you’ve been seriously screwed over. I know, because my name’s Jack Pittman, and I got sent here against my will.

This place exists outside of your universe, but it’s all around you.

Only, to get there you have to do some serious heavy moving with the machinery of reality. The Playground always exists one second behind you, or maybe one atom’s width away. Look around you. Have you ever wondered what happens with all that space once reality is done with it?

I’m here to tell you it’s used for something else.

I don’t think you’re ready to know what for, either. Not if you want to be able to go home and sleep well. The universe is filled with all kinds of marvels and wonders. Hamlet once told a friend of his, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” That’s Shakespeare, by the way. He had the right of it. If you haven’t read him yet, you need to turn your damn Facebook off and start reading.

Some of his plays, the ones where supernatural things step into our world and meddle in the affairs of men, are kind of an early warning radar. I think the guy has been here before. Evidently he made it back.

Most people don’t.

That’s because the universe is also full of bad dreams and walking terrors.

I’m sure you’ve heard of things like alien abductions, Bigfoot, the Jersey devil? They’re all from here. So are werewolves, banshees, wraiths, vampires, and all sorts of things that slither out of dark recesses and creep forth into the night to feed on the unsuspecting.

The playground is a place where demons, monsters, mages, and the power hungry left the world you and I were born into to carve a little niche of their own. They wanted to be left alone to make a safe haven for themselves so they could feed in peace. Once you take one step out of phase and enter this realm, everything changes. There are no frenzied mobs of torch waving villagers to chase boogey men away or come to your rescue. The powers that dwell here made an agreement a long time ago. Each one has its own principality. They guard these jealously.

The real mischief is that most parts of the Playground seem to have an order of sorts. It’s better if nothing riles up the herd too much. In fact, most of the people living here don’t know the whole truth. But if you wind up here and step out of the pen, then woe to you, stranger. For the most part, ancient wards and powerful seals at the edges of the Playground keep things from slipping out into your neighborhood.

And you better pray that they stay put.

Because if they don’t, you’re what will be on their menu.

Sit back and pay attention to what I have to say; it might just save your life. My name is Jack Pittman. This is my story. I hope you take notes.

Chapter 1

I Scream Of Genie

 

Dying really sucked.

That’s right. You heard me. I said dying sucked.

The night it happened to me I was sneaking across the golf course to see my ex-girlfriend. Something was bothering her and guys like me have a Knight-To-The-Rescue complex where toxic girls are concerned. I knew I shouldn’t have been walking through the dark woods at eleven o’clock at night. Not for somebody who had dumped me three months earlier for a pre-law school student who had . . . what was it that her mother had called it?

Oh yes. Prospects.

I on the other hand had the projects.

Her mother (and every one else living in the country club) seemed to have it in for me, which was why I had to sneak through the woods that separated my trailer park from her manicured paradise as a buffer zone of sorts.

They thought I was trailer park trash.

Liz constantly told me we were too different. Maybe her family’s distaste for me came down to the fact that my family ate hamburger helper for dinner on paper plates and sipped coke from red solo cups. Families like hers ate in dining rooms where wainscoting was the norm and food came with French subtitles like chateaubriand and coq au vin. The first time I had dinner with her family and asked what we were eating, I thought they cleared their throat at first.

I suspected there was something more to it than that, though. But I had never been able to put my finger on it even from the start. Social events with them were just tres magnifique. Describing how it felt to be around them is hard. Have you ever been in a crowded room when someone farted? I never felt like the person passing the gas.

I always felt like I was the fart.

Liz’s mom nearly threw a party that she was shut of me after my graduation. I was too poor for anything but a no-name state school and Liz never lost a chance to brag about her acceptance into Duke. As I snuck out of the woods and onto the open sea of smoothly cut grass, I had to ask myself, why did she want to take time out of her sorority dreams for a guy like me who was a slow ride to nowhere for her?

“I just need to talk about something,” she told me in an agitated voice over the phone an hour earlier.

I lied to her. “I’ve got something important to do.” I just didn’t feel like being her diversion of the moment because she didn’t have anyone else to occupy her attention.

“Jack, please. This is big.”

Was it the inflection in her voice that changed my mind or the fact that a part of me still had feelings for her? A cynical sort of person might think that it was the fact that she was a one hundred fifteen pound platinum blond with piercing blue eyes and a perfectly shaped B-cup breast line that was perkier than a debutant on crack.

I didn’t get a chance to find out, though. As I came around the ninth green, I caught the unmistakable glimmer of something highly reflective by the edge of the rough. I had to be pretty observant whenever I was on the course because every time security saw me, the first thing they did was chase me with clubs brandished like war hammers, modern versions of yuppie Vikings in lime green polos and (I kid you not) watermelon pink khakis.

Lucky for me no country club denizens of Jotunheim came berserking across the green in frenzied hordes. Something did catch my eye, though. A brass colored object winked at me in the starlight.

How odd.

I slowed and stopped. This golf course was kept about as immaculately clean as a music diva’s bed sheets, and by the end of each day the country club grounds looked as virginal and pristine as Miley Cyrus when she was still Hannah Montana. Which meant someone must have dropped the thing afterhours. Curious, I walked over to it, and when I got close enough I saw that an antique oil lamp sat upright and polished like a well-tended museum piece on the flat expanse of closely cropped grass.

People didn’t just drop something like this on the ninth green. As I drew closer I suddenly became certain that all was not as it should be on the ninth hole of the Holly Downs Country Club golf course.

Looking around, nothing stirred. Not even the crickets trilled their nighttime serenade from the cover of manicured shrubs. All around me the night wrapped the world in a dark, humid, and still, July blanket. Something nearby waited to pull the cover back and spring out at me.

I felt it there, waiting.

I was afraid of the thing on the ground, but I ignored my instincts and reached down to pick the lamp up. As soon as my fingers touched its smooth surface, I winced. The thing was cold. So cold that it burned my fingertips. As I quickly drew my hand back, my fingers brushed against its surface, drawing from it a disconcerting shriek. I fell back as gouts of angry, almost liquid-like smoke billowed out of the lamp’s fluted top.

All thoughts fled from my mind as I sat too dumbfounded to move. I knew I should have backed away, but all I could do was sit there on my butt with my mouth hanging open catching flies while the lamp vomited its contents into the air. The vaporous cloud swirled maddeningly before me, spinning and elongating around and around in concentric rings like a coiling snake composed of the stuff of a nightmare gas.

A great light flared suddenly and I screamed, shielding my eyes with my arms as the blinding flash sizzled its way past my eyeballs and into my skull. I do not remember losing consciousness and falling over, but when I came to, my head was ringing like struck bell.

I inhaled the sweet scent of recently cut grass and immediately noticed a silver light glittering above my body. I sat up, looked at the source, blinked and rubbed my eyes.

Then I blinked again.

And rubbed my eyes again.

And said something no one should ever say around their grandmothers, kindergarteners, or nuns. Ten feet above my body a disco ball spun merrily, scintillating rapidly enough to induce an epileptic seizure.

A chipper baritone chimed at me with a relaxed drawl that was so southern it could have seasoned a pot of collard greens like freshly fried fatback. “Well hello there young fella!”

“Holy hell,” I gasped without thinking. “I died and went to the seventies.” Indeed, floating in front of me was a short man dressed in a poorly fitted Elvis wig—the kind you see on tacky Vegas street performers. He sported a cheap white polyester suit covered in rhinestones throwing off an effect nearly as psychedelic as the disco ball. “Mom was right,” I said in amazement.

“Come again, son? Stop cryin’ like a hound dog and make a little sense for the King, alright?”

“Sh-she told me that I was going to clog up my arteries and die like my Papaw if I kept eating fast food. I just thought I had more time before that happened.”

The stranger guffawed and slapped his knee. “You ain’t dead yet, little man!”

That made sense. It explained why I hadn’t seen my life pass before my eyes. “So . . . um . . . what’s going on?” I choked out as I stood up and brushed myself off. I moved back warily, because there was something about the man aside from his felonious disregard for the law of gravity that I did not like. “Who are you? WHAT are you? Some kind of genie or something?”

The man gave me a sly smile, the kind a cat offers up to a mouse before eating it. “And what if I were? You gonna make your first request?”

I shook my head to see if the world returned to normal and backed off a few more steps to buy some time. The world didn’t seem in any kind of hurry to reassert the normal rules that it abided by only a few moments before when people did not float, and the seventies ended a proper thirty-five years and six presidents earlier.

With a flick of his head, the floating man cleared several loose strands of hair from his face and floated closer. Somewhere in the back of my mind my instincts went on high alert, and my subconscious voice suddenly spoke up, shouting in a robot’s voice, Danger Will Robinson! Danger Will Robinson! Heeding the wary voice of my inner robot, I stepped back a few more paces and gestured to his costume. “He’s dead, you know?”

The Elvis impersonator screwed up his face with a scowl and waggled his finger at me. “I’m a fan, bubba. Good music never dies, and you haven’t answered my question.”

I shrugged my shoulders. “I’m a guy who has everything he needs.”

“Try me.”

“Don’t rush me; we haven’t even had our first date yet.”

The floating man flashed me an avaricious smile that was too full of teeth for my liking. Where were the country club Vikings when I needed them? “Silly child, you must make me a request.”

I didn’t have enough time to pause and doubt my sanity. Things were going from bizarre to threatening too fast for me to think clearly. “Fine then,” I told him. “Go away.”

The genie-Elvis impersonator gave me a sly smile, nodded his head, and said, “Done.”

I stood there with my hands open . . . waiting. “Ummm, you’re not gone yet.”

“You didn’t say when I had to go away,” he responded mischievously. “And you’ve only got a few more wishes.”

I racked my brain trying to remember everything I had ever read about the genies in the past. Liz and her parents might have called me trailer park trash, but I read voraciously. I graduated from the high school academically gifted program for a reason.

I held my hand out in a gesture for more time. He wore an aggrieved expression. “Tick-tock tick-tock.”

“I thought your kind had kings and stuff like that. Won’t they be mad you’ve shown yourself? After all, no one has seen one of your kind since—what, the 600’s?”

The genie’s face went from indulgent to angry. “I have to work for a different regime now.”

“Workplace harassment sucks,” I offered hopefully.

The genie’s face contorted as if he were lifting a heavy weight, and he said something that grabbed my attention. “You’re taking too much time! I have other places I need to be!”

I may not be the fastest car on the road, but my brain was beginning to recover from the initial shock when it came to a screeching halt at the intersection of Get-Me-The-Hell-Out-Of-Here Street and What-WAS-That-Lamp-Doing-On-The-Ninth-Hole Avenue. And I wasn’t taking in the scenery.

“You were supposed to meet me here!?” I exclaimed.

The genie gritted his teeth and his voice grew sinister. “Choose or I’ll change your nuts into golf balls,” he said.

“I’d rather croak than have some perv mess with me like that,” I blurted out without thinking. I should have thought my words through much more carefully.

The genie looked at me with a growing expression of delight. “Hmmm . . .” he mused. “Since I can’t just kill you or keep you alive, I think this way might be more fun.”

“Can’t just kill me?” I started saying. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” But before I got any more words out, that’s exactly what he did.

He gave me my request.

He killed me, but he didn’t just kill me. And I was about to find out the difference.

Chapter 2

Accountant Dracula

 

I sat up gasping for air.

The genie was still right there wearing one of those Elvis get-ups made of white vinyl with flared pant-legs and an abnormally large collar.

“Hi there young fella,” he greeted me with his best Elvis drawl.

My mind must have been really messed up and hadn’t quite made the transition back to being alive again because I screamed, “Gort! Klaatu Barada Nikto!” at him. Then I remembered that was what the dude told the alien robot in the black and white version of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

I shook my head and flailed around like a mannequin caught on a high-tension electric line. Nothing seemed to work for a bit. Before everything came back to me and my body did what it was supposed to do, there were an awful lot of misfires. The first time I tried wiggling my toes I scratched my butt instead.

Once all systems were a go, I managed to scream a very respectable, “The hell you what do to me did?”

Or something like that. I’m still a bit unclear.

The genie gave me a pouty look through the thick mop of dark hair falling across his face from the Elvis wig he wore. “I’d think you’d be more grateful since I brought you back. I don’t usually do freebies. But I’d always wanted to try that.”

“Eh . . . what?” I croaked.

“You were dead,” he said matter-of-factly. “Dead and buried, buckaroo.”

I opened my mouth to tell him he was full of a select choice of animal droppings when suddenly a great big burp came out instead.

It tasted like formaldehyde.

And I threw up.

“Takes time to pull it all back together,” he told me sympathetically.

“What the hell is going on?” I screamed before the heaving subsided. Damn I felt weak. I tried to stand up, but all I managed was more retching. I won’t tell you what came out, but when something sits inside of you for lord only knows how long in various states of decay and desiccation, it acquires a very distinctive zing. Finally the retching stopped because the only thing left to come up was my stomach and lower intestines, and I hoped they were still attached.

Using an unsteady hand, I pushed myself upright and shook my head and groaned. “That’s impossible”

The portly man beside me just shrugged his shoulders. “Told you, I’m a genie. And this was the only way I could think of to follow my orders, which were pretty specific. I couldn’t really kill you, but I had to remove you from . . . well, your life. So I economized. I brought you somewhere else.”

Somewhere else? I didn’t like the sound of that. The inflection he put on that last word made me uneasy. I shook my head. He wasn’t making any sense. Hell. About an hour ago my own life stopped making sense. When I looked around, I realized I was in a cemetery. Tombstones stood out across the ground like finely cut marble teeth with the regularity and precision typical of a city of the dead.

“Fitting place to bring you,” he said, “since I couldn’t allow you to go back to where you came from. Too many awkward questions, and my boss hates those with a passion. But hey, I know somebody here who might—”

“Where the hell are we?” I interrupted. My head still felt as if it were full of . . . well, embalming fluid.

With this, the genie’s face brightened. “The only place I could bring you back AND keep you away at the same time.”

My stomach lurched. My head hurt. This guy wasn’t making a lick of sense, and I wanted to do mean things to him. Between gritted teeth, I said, “I have no clue what you are talking about and I want to go home. Now.”

The genie clapped me on my back. “No can do, hound dog.”

A gust of wind blew against my face, rustling dried leaves, sending some to skitter across the ground like petrified crabs. The breeze was cold, causing me to shiver. With it came the scents of autumn, of dried vegetation and a touch of wood smoke. A grey sheet of paper lifted up and somersaulted through the air until it came to rest wrapped around my shin. When I took hold of it, I saw that I held the front page of a newspaper.

As my eyes skimmed across the headlines, the man beside me said softly, “See? You ain’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

The newspaper page proclaimed in large letters that Washington DC was still too radioactive to remain a principality. The article that followed said that someone named Gamma-Ray Godfrey, the Heretical Nuclear Jew, wanted to claim it as his own. Only, some group called the Vegan Plutonium Al Queda Reformed Movement (Christians, Mormons, and Jews Welcome! Scientologists need not apply!) bragged that it blew the city up for not supporting a ban on all meats human and otherwise. The group thought that the district all the way down to Alexandria should be theirs by right of conquest. But the author noted that the principality next to it belonged to the Enlightened Order of Zombies, and there were going to be obvious clashes of ideology over culinary habits.

I looked at the genie blankly.

If this were merely a mean trick, I would still be on the golf course and it would still be summertime—which clearly it was not. The genie sighed. “I had to do it this way, and if you’d just played along I might have been able to make things easier, but nothing’s easy when too many people have a hold on my lamp. Makes me kind of schizophrenic. Gets me all kinds of crazy. Too many miles to Memphis for me to keep myself whole, if you catch my drift.”

I didn’t. No. Not really. “You really are a genie, then?”

He nodded his head.

“And you really killed me?”

He nodded his head. “Didn’t want to, but I had my orders.”

I think my face grew pale.

I know I grew light headed and nearly fell. “You’ll get used to it in time.”

My head still may have been a bit slow, but it didn’t take long for the gears to start turning.

My mom . . .

Dad . . .

Sister . . .

I might never see them again. My fists clenched involuntarily. “You son of a bitch,” I growled. “What have you done to me?”

“You said you’d rather croak than live with a golf course down below,” he said blithely. “I think a little thanks are in order.”

My voice came out as a hiss. “What did you say? A little thanks?”

“Son, I didn’t keep you dead. I didn’t turn you into a one-man putt-putt game. And I could have turned you into a toad.”

Maybe it was his sanctimonious tone that finally did it. I hit him. Right square in his blunt little upturned nose. His eyes went wide and he fell to the ground with a loud grunt. That was when I remembered what had been tickling my memory before he brought me here. According to mythology, genies were physical beings. That meant I could hit him and make it hurt. When he looked up at me with that stupid wig turned askance and a pouty twist forming on his lips, I raised my hand to hit him again. Before I made it to him, the loud pop of inrushing air as the genie disappeared jarred me.

I looked around, finally alone. I didn’t lower my fist, however. If I caught even a flash of rhinestone or a flicker of anything resembling imitation Elvis I was going to go Samuel L all over his ass before he had a chance to neuter me. At that moment, a noise from behind a tall tombstone caught my attention. I stepped toward it, ready to fight. Whatever lurked on the other side wasn’t too large. I could tell that much. The quick sounds I heard could only have been made by a medium sized animal. This didn’t make me feel any better, though. If genies actually existed, anything could be waiting back there to pounce on me.

I heard something shaking itself and held my breath. My heart rate increased. Whatever the thing was, it was slowly inching its way around the edge of the monument. As it drew closer, I clenched my fist so hard that my knuckles popped. A dark, surreptitious form slowly emerged. At first it hesitated, as if afraid of me just as I was afraid of it. But as more and more of the creature revealed itself, I felt my fear abate. When at last I saw the creature in its entirety, I let my hand fall to my side, laughed, and got down on my knees, patting my thigh, beckoning to the shape to come forward.

The inquisitive and bearded face of a large schnauzer looked back at me, uncertain whether or not to approach. “Fine,” I said after it became apparent that the dog preferred its cautious distance. “I won’t scratch your ear, then.”

The dog regarded me for another moment or two, and then chuffed quietly. I still did not get up right away. That animal was the first non-threatening thing I had seen since accidentally triggering the genie’s lamp, and I did not want to alarm it. “I just wish you could tell me where I am,” I absently told the dog, envying its thick coat of fur. “Or how to find something warmer.” I seemed to be wearing a thin suit of some sort.

The dog cocked its head as if it considered my words, and then gave a series of barks that rang clear into the night air but went unanswered. I watched as it sniffed at me once, and then set off at a brisk trot, disappearing farther back into the cemetery where larger mausoleums sat still like pale, squat elephants in the dark. I stood up and my knees popped. To my left, the sky glowed from the light of countless streetlamps. About a hundred feet away, a road ran on the other side of an iron fence adorned with sharply tipped spires. A lonely sidewalk buffered it from the road, and at this hour the only thing aside from the schnauzer occupying this part of the world was me.

A snapping twig was the first thing that announced I wasn’t as alone as I thought. Then I heard someone sneaking up on me. I spun in place in time to see a tall figure clad in a dark cloak looming over me. This stranger had a long, pallid, angular face with a narrow chin and short, dark hair. His eyes smoldered with the low crimson light of dying embers. His gaze bore down on me and I felt the hackles on the back of my neck stand up.

I think I might have screamed, but before I had a chance to do anything else, he raised his arms and as his cloak fell back, revealing two cadaverous hands tipped with long and tapering fingers. He leered at me in a way that promised nothing good was going to come of this meeting. When he spoke, his parted lips revealed two wicked fangs that gleamed with a serpentine menace. I gasped as he crooned in a voice as gritty as the bottom of a grave, “I want to drink your blood.”

I knew this just wasn’t going to be my night.

Chapter 3

Down Into Darkness

 

“I’m sorry, sir! Can you say that again!?” I blurted out, hoping that the stranger had intended to say something a bit less coherent. Maybe, “I don’t bestink your mud,” or something like that.

That was not what he said to me. To drive that point home, his eyes bore into mine with the fires of perdition burning behind his pupils, and he repeated the words, slowly adding emphasis to enunciation. “I will have your blood, young man. There is nothing you can do now that you are in my power!”

I looked at the towering figure. His eyes held mine, and in that instant I sensed that everything came down to a contest of wills. I said nothing, afraid to move until the last possible instant. He said nothing, waiting for his aura of fear to fully sink into my bones and freeze my marrow fast, rendering me senselessly immobile. I knew that once he got those long, powerful fingers locked around my head I was a goner.

I very well might have remained like that, galvanized to that spot of ground, but then it happened . . . the thing that must always happen when you’re accosted by a bloodsucker of the night. I saw the briefest flicker of motion in his eyes as they lost their lock on mine. His gaze shifted subtly and hungrily to my throat.

. . . and he was a dude.

He licked his lips to moisten them in preparation for his attack, where he would wrap his mouth around my throat.

. . . and he was a dude.

No offense meant to the LGBT community. But that just ain’t me. So as the fiend stepped forward, his gaze now firmly and lustily fixed on the vulnerable spot between the curve of my shoulder and the bottom of my ear, I raised my right hand and sent my fist pile-driving right between his eyes.

The vampire’s startled lids automatically pinched closed in pain. He opened his mouth to let out a furious hiss, and . . .

And his fangs fell out of his mouth onto the ground below with a soft plop.

“Oh damn!” he exclaimed. Things might have been copasetic between us if he hadn’t chosen to look at me like he expected me to give him a moment to squeeze those things back into his mouth, so . . .

I hit him again.

“Ouch!”

“What do you mean, ouch?!” I screamed at him.

“That hurt!” he cried out from behind long fingers cradling his nose.

“Do you mind if I please just get these?’ he flashed in annoyance.

I stood there gaping dumbly at the man. “What, so you can use your powers to mind-rape me before draining me dry? Hell no, buddy!” I cried out in defiance and danced closer to hit him again.

The vampire held his hands up in supplication. His voice was heavy with regret. “I only wanted to scare you.”

“Well cut that shit out!” I screamed. “You can’t go around propositioning guys like that. Next time just slip someone a roofie, alright?”

“What is a roofie?” he asked, trying to sound vampirish by pronouncing it as “Vaat is a roooofie?”

“Don’t be absurd,” I snapped. “You’re not a vampire.”

The man bent over, snatched up his teeth, and quickly reseated them on his gums. As the smoldering glow within his eyes reignited, I muttered, “Geez Louise.”

Maybe he was.

“I am a vampire,” he said sadly,” But I’m afraid I’m not a very good one these days.”

I stepped back and got ready to hit him again. “Then you might need roofies if those fangs keep falling out,” I said, pointing at his mouth.

He arched an inquisitive eyebrow at me and said nothing until I realized he was waiting for an answer.

“Oh. Sorry,” I told him. “A roofie is a type of sedative some people use to incapacitate dates so they can . . . you know.”

The vampire shook his head sadly. “I’m afraid I’m not that kind of vampire.”

I didn’t know if I was ready to accept that after his first menacing performance. “I’m sure you tell that to all the guys.”

A grouchy expression flitted across his face. “I’m not that kind of vampire, either. What are you, some kind of homophobe?”

I still didn’t unclench my fist. “Stick to the topic. What gives?”

With a dramatic twirl of his cape, the man who nearly accosted me drew the fabric over his chest as smoothly as Bella Lugosi. “What gives with you setting off all of my alarms and scaring my guard dog in the middle of the night?” he retorted.

“The schnauzer? That’s your guard dog?” I felt like laughing would be impolite.

“We prefer to call him a Hound of Hell.”

Good grief.

I chose not to respond to that. I’ve seen Chihuahuas that were more intimidating. Instead, I told him, “I didn’t have any choice in the matter, what with the crazy genie and all . . .”

From my companion came a sharp intake of breath and a muttered curse. “That fink!” The glow in his eyes flared into intense miniature furnaces.

“You know each other, then?” I asked darkly.

He gave a sardonic laugh. “You might say that. He is the reason I live here in the Playground.”

Confused, I said, “Cemetery?”

The vampire suddenly looked around with intense concentration and hissed angrily. As I opened my mouth to ask what was wrong, he cast me a look warning me to keep my mouth shut. In the distance I heard shouting and saw flashlight beams probing the cemetery’s heart as they waggled across the ground in search of interlopers into the necropolis’s tranquil abode.

“Follow me if you want to live to see the next day,” he urgently demanded.

Before I had time to think, my companion was off into the labyrinth of mausoleums faster than Wiz Kalifa could roll a blunt. He was pretty spry for a dead guy, darting between headstones like an Olympic grave robber. I had to run as fast as I could, but he still kept too far ahead of me to bother calling out to slow up. Meanwhile, my stomach gave a sickening lurch when I heard an angry chorus of ferocious dogs start baying somewhere near the main entrance of the grounds.

As I rounded one of the larger crypts, a long arm swept at me out of nowhere, taking ahold of me with the strength of an industrial steel band. I reacted in panic, prying at it with my finger and beating at the arm’s owner ineffectively. I tried levering my body to flip my attacker over, but his strength was staggering. He forcibly twisted my arm until I had to drop to my knees or risk feeling it become liberated from my shoulder blade.

The sizzling pain was too sharp to make a sound. I felt myself dragged backward into the mausoleum and heard its heavy door grate to a raspy close. So this was it? Killed by a murderous villain of the night and bled dry even as the searchers arrived? Maybe they weren’t searchers.

Maybe they were rescuers.

No sooner was that thought out than I felt myself shoved hard against the cold wall. I gave out a pained oomph, inhaling decades of dust into my nose. I barely managed to get enough air for a breath when cold, hard fingers covered my mouth, and the vampire leaned in close. I smelled the flat, irony scent of blood on his breath as he spoke. “Keep your damned mouth shut. They’ll be gone in a few minutes.” Then he added reassuringly, “I have voles.”

I strained against his unbreakable grip, but all I managed to do was pinion my arms uselessly until I wore myself out. On the other side of the granite walls I heard the muffled exchange of cold, brutal voices and animals that sounded more reptilian than canine. Now that they were practically on top of us, I realized that maybe they weren’t rescuers after all.

When the sounds of their search died down, I felt the hold on me slowly begin to loosen. When I could finally breathe again, blood circulated in my head once more and my thoughts became clearer.

I have voles? I missed something somewhere and felt like it was important.

This man was strong enough to have easily pulled me apart back where we met. When all remained silent for a bit of time, I relaxed a little. His fingers finally disappeared from around my face and the vampire pressed a stone lever, causing the wall at the back end of the structure to slowly move in on itself with an abrasive, stone-on-stone sigh to reveal a dark opening. He let go of me and swiftly disappeared into the darkness. I heard his voice echo up to me, “You can come down here and live or go outside and die, but if you go back out, would you please shut the door completely? I would prefer not to have to listen to you scream.”

I wasn’t ready to go down into that dark hole yet, so I crossed my arms and just stood there. “Hey, what did you mean about voles?” I called into the opening.

That got nothing.

“What did you mean about a playground?” I didn’t see any playground; all I saw was the cemetery.

That too went unanswered.

Looking into the inky black opening, I cast a rueful glance at the small safety light countersunk into the lintel above the door. Damn it was cold. I swore several oaths aloud and started to walk into the secret passage where an undead predator with a driving need for human blood waited.

Chapter 4

What Is Normal, Anyway?

 

I expected a staircase lined with torches burning moodily in a somber atmosphere of cobwebs and decades of sepulchral dust. And I expected that to lead into a crypt filled with half-opened coffins revealing desiccated corpses grown as dry over time as a mummy’s toilet paper.

Instead, what I got was track lighting accompanying a spiraling stairway with sensible no-slip surfaces that opened into a spacious apartment resembling a Bob Timberlake showroom. I had to admit that I was impressed.

My host gestured for me to take a seat on a brown couch fronted by a large gray ottoman. I wasn’t aware of how tired I was until I sat down. I wanted to sink into the fabric and wake up back in my room where this would all just fade away as a bad dream.

“Son-of-a-bitch,” I growled as I shot upright and stiff. This had to be part of the guy’s modus operandi: Lure unsuspecting, exhausted victims into a warm, inviting, comfortable, and dimly lit living space with downhome country furnishings and feed on them in seclusion.

I know I might seem rude, but I was in the lair of a predator.

From the kitchen I heard a refrigerator door open and the tale-tell sounds of someone rummaging through its interior. “I’m afraid all I have is O-positive,” the vampire called out regrettably. But a moment later he gave out a surprised, “Hey, I forgot about this!”

While I waited I picked up a National Geographic off of the coffee table and began rifling through it. The headline on the cover proclaimed, “The Changing Face of Atlantis.” On the picture beneath, bored-looking men in togas were loading happy children onto an amusement ride.

Evidently, much to the delight of New Agers everywhere, Atlantis did finally rise up out of the ocean. And no sooner did the head of the place start preaching forgotten truths and hidden wisdoms than a greedy conglomerate of international interests seized the fabled city. Much to the displeasure of people everywhere, the New Agers ran the conglomerate. They turned the place into an amusement park. Now tourists flock there to have their chakras realigned.

Every year there are attempts by the Atlantians to sneak across the border through Mexico. Life as a carousel operator pays squat. The coyotes were excited at first to have new clients, until they found out the Atlantians paid in ancient Greek drachmas.

When the vampire came back into the room, he carried one I.V. unit of blood and a drink for me.

It was a Bloody Mary.

“I hope you like this,” he said, proffering me the drink. “I don’t entertain many visitors. My name is Mike, by the way.”

“I’m Jack Pittman,” I told him; then I eyed the drink to avoid shaking his hand. “Your . . . um . . . occupation would seem to make entertaining friends bit hard,” I observed.

The vampire looked perplexed for a moment. “Occupation?” He asked, looking as if he had missed something. Then his eyes opened in realization. “Being a vampire isn’t an occupation for me, it’s a curse, Jack. I’m actually a retired tax accountant.”

So. He made a living sucking the blood out of other people before he really had to suck their blood. “How ironic.”

“That one never gets old,” the vampire lamented as if reading my mind.

I cleared my throat and changed the topic before things got too awkward. “So what did the genie do to you?” I knew that we both had a lot of common ground in this area.

Mike sighed and sat down heavily in a soft chair. “The day I brought that venomous little snake’s lamp home from an antique shop over in Queens was the worst day of my life. My wife Rita and I were constantly arguing back in 1986. Usually over money. She wanted an Upper East Side lifestyle and I was just a simple blue-collar Brooklyn guy at heart. Rita was constantly angry with me because I didn’t want to pull more hours at work.”

Mike closed his eyes and his voice dropped an octave. He sniffed once and regained composure. “The lamp was my way of apologizing. When I showed it to her, she was still pissed and snatched it out of my hands. We must have triggered it together. She told me that she wanted to be rich, and then she called me a life-sucking excuse for a husband who shouldn’t be alive. That’s when I told her that I would rather be a life-sucking monster than live in a world she had been born into.” Mike looked up at me. “Such terrible words to tell each other.” His eyes were bloodshot in a way that had nothing to do with his vampyric condition. “I was just angry.”

“Is that when . . .”

Mike nodded his head. “Yes. He burst out of that lamp like a Texas tornado and sent me here.” Mike gave a hollow laugh, “A bloodsucker living in a world where Rita never existed. Just what I wanted.”

I whistled sympathetically. “That sucks. Sounds like Rita got off better.”

Mike shook his head, this time with a laugh that I could not decipher. “No. Here’s the dark mischief in it. You see, she didn’t ask for money. She asked to be rich, Jack. Rich. So he turned her into a cheese cake.”

All I could think to say was, “Oh my.” Then I added, “So this is what the Elvis impersonating psychopath does for fun? I just want to go back home. That’s all I want.”

Mike grunted and made a face. “Elvis, huh? You’re lucky. When I met him, he was on a Woody Guthrie kick. He sent me here singing This Land Was Your Land.”

I winced.

“Is there any way back home?” I now dreaded the answer to that question, but I needed to know.

“Look Jack, I don’t think you realize exactly where you are.”

“And where am I?” God, I hoped he was about to say Disney Land.

He only said two words. “The Playground.”

I shifted uncomfortably. The Playground? What an amazing lack of information that provided. “Um . . . the playground? Doesn’t sound too bad, does it?”

Mike gave a sardonic smile. “It’s short for the Demon’s Playground, Jack.”

I sat back and repeated Mike’s words for myself. Again, I shifted uncomfortably. The Demon’s Playground? What an amazing clarification that provided. I liked the term Playground much better. It brought to mind happy images, like Smurfs singing, or fairies dancing around in a circle.

The Demon’s Playground on the other hand conjured a slightly different set of visuals, like a ring of Smurfs circling a naked virgin tied to a stake while they chanted the title music to the movie The Omen. I shivered and silently swore that the next big investment I was making had to include a cat named Azrael.

“That, I hope, is metaphorical and not literal,” I said.

Mike shook his head slowly. “No one knows why this place exists. Few who come here ever make it back home. Think of this place as a plane instead of a world, Jack. You’ll bake your noodle if you try too hard to pin it down in terms of where we come from.”

“But the paper I saw mentioned D.C.,” I protested.

Mike shook his head. “It is and it isn’t. Did your Washington D.C. exist when you came here?”

I nodded my head.

“Not with the likes of Gamma Ray Godfrey I bet. Everything in our world has corresponding points within the Playground. Sometimes they overlap. And sometimes, something from here gets loose over there. You’ve heard of Bigfoot, Nancy Grace, and the Loch Ness Monster haven’t you?”

I nodded.

“Then think of this as the hole that they crawled out of.”

“But the cemetery looked as normal as any cemetery I’ve ever seen, and the road running beside it looked like Anytown U.S.A.”

Mike nodded his head quickly. “Listen to me. Looks are very deceiving here in this part of the Playground. If you had somehow wondered in by accident, you might not have noticed that anything was off for quite some time. But the farther you go, the weirder things get. Hell, just a few hundred miles north of us there’s a province ruled by Zombies, and that’s one of the better places to live. Several miles south, and it’s always night.”

I shook my head. “Is there anywhere normal here?”

Mike shrugged his shoulders. “Iowa?”

“Iowa was pretty normal where I come from, too.”

“Good to know that some things never change,” he said in wistful voice.

“But can I go back home?”

Mike shook his head. “I’m not sure, Jack. Gateways can be made from one place to another within the Playground, but only within the Playground, and they’re almost impossible to create. I tried finding a way back, but I eventually found my niche, here. Over time I gave up, and I figured that if I did manage to pop back up after all those years, I’d have to account for too many things that couldn’t be explained—like Rita’s disappearance for starters, and then there’s the problem of my condition. I would never be able to get blood there without hurting someone. Don’t even get me started on my fangs. I had to have the things specially engineered so I could keep some of my powers, and even here, it wasn’t easy.”

“How do you get blood here?” As I asked the question I mentally tabulated the distance from the couch to the door in case I didn’t like the answer.

“Sam’s Club sales it wholesale in I.V. and powdered form.”

“Oh.”

“But I’ve got to go to the closest principality south of us to get it. Sam’s Club doesn’t carry it here.”

I noticed when Mike said that he wore a look of deep loathing. I was about to ask him about it when an awful, high-pitched racket erupted around me. “What the—”

I yelped when I realized dozens of furry brown shapes frantically skittered around at our feet.

“No! Don’t!” Mike yelled as I raised a foot to step on anything straying too close to me.

“It’s a damned rat!” I spat, creeped out by the moving carpet of fur that seemed to be growing exponentially in the room.

“Good God, I’ve never seen so many,” I said in revulsion. Rats have always grossed me out, and the more there are, the worse it gets. There is a fluidity to their movements that’s unnatural. They’re quick, agile, spread diseases, and crap everywhere. Summoning my inner animal lover proved too much whenever I saw anything that looked like a rat. When that happened, it went on strike and didn’t make an appearance again until I came home with an armload of rattraps.

Mike’s voice became stern. “They’re friends, Jack! I’d appreciate it if you didn’t piss any of them off.”

I tucked my feet beneath my legs and watched as Mike extended an arm out, allowing one to climb onto it and crawl up to his shoulder where it began squeaking animatedly. Mike nodded his head several times, grunted once or twice, and mostly cringed.

When the furry thing finally stopped, Mike muttered something in a low voice that sounded like, “Good job.” His face had taken on a livid cast.

To my relief, the vermin began dispersing. As the room became safe to walk in, Mike stood up and barked, “We’ve got trouble!”

I had to move quickly to follow Mike out of the warm room and back up into the cold mausoleum. I heard a dog barking outside. When we stepped out into the cold air, I immediately saw the source of the dog’s distress. Beside me, Mike inhaled sharply.

Overhead, a dozen of the largest aircraft I had ever seen didn’t so much fly as drift across the sky, moving above us at a leisurely pace. They had no discernable wings I could speak of. Roughly triangular in shape, their undersurfaces bore three concave indentions at the center of which glowed a sullen and foul tempered shade of red, as if the color had been forced to remain there, though it wanted to be somewhere else very badly.

I got a bad feeling just looking at them, as if a million voices cried out in the Force all at once and then were made to scream louder.

Searchlights moved in wide sweeping arcs from the craft to the ground below. Once the things drifted about a half-mile beyond the perimeter of the cemetery, the lights suddenly went out and the large ships moved off with the ponderous and slow grace of whales.

Mike spat out a solid chain of swear words. Then he turned and looked at me again, regarding me the way a jeweler might appraise a diamond that he just discovered was radioactive. “I was afraid something like this was going to happen one day,” he growled, and looked down at the black schnauzer I had seen by the tombstone earlier. “Marshal the voles,” he told the dog. “All of them . . . and Max, don’t be seen.”

The dog whined once, and trotted off.

“Is this bad?” I gasped, not enjoying the feeling that the aircraft above us were throwing off.

Mike nodded his head grimly. “We must get you out of here soon; they’re looking for you.”

Chapter 5

The Times That Try Men’s Voles

 

I followed Mike back into the mausoleum’s musty smelling interior as a dozen or so plump voles scurried around our feet and through the opening before it closed.

“The voles ought to mask any scent we’ve left behind,” the vampire said as we rushed down the stairs and into his subterranean apartment. He led me into a spacious pantry stocked with boxes of powdered blood and placed a travel pack into my hands. “Pack this with all the O-positive you can find. After that, AB-negative keeps my energy levels up.”

“What are we doing,” I asked, more than a bit worried. “Who is after me? What’s going on?” I hated feeling helpless, and right now I had no idea of what waited in the world . . . plane . . . whatever right outside the cemetery gates.

Mike sighed. “The baron of this principality is a demon that doesn’t like competition. He doesn’t let anything supernatural in and has a perimeter of detectors and defenses set up to keep things like us out.”

“So what does any of this have to do with me?”

Mike looked at me strangely. “At first I thought that the genie’s arrival triggered the first search that you saw. But those Vandugga are a whole other matter.”

“What’s a Vandugga?” I asked as my hands moved quickly to pack the boxes Mike indicated.

“Vandugga are reconnaissance drones cooked up after scientists here reverse engineered an alien spacecraft. The aliens landed by accident twenty years ago not too far from here.”

I took several water bottles from Mike and stuffed them into the sacks. “You mean aliens, like from outer space?” I asked. “What happened to them?”

“The demon fed them to his pet chupacabras,” Mike grimaced. “Which is what you will be if I don’t get you somewhere safer.”

I stopped what I was doing and waited until Mike looked at me. I needed to know the answer to this question.

“Why?”

“I told you that the demon doesn’t like competition. And for him to set those things out looking for you means that you are on his short list of enemies.”

“No . . . I mean yes . . . we’ll get to all that in a minute. Why are you helping me, Mike? I’m supposed to be food to you.”

Mike’s cheek flinched as if I had just poked him in the eye. “When the genie transformed me, he didn’t turn me into a full vampire. I suppose that turned out to be a good thing, because—never mind—that’s a story for another day. Let’s just say I’ve been helping run an underground rescue for supernatural beings like us for almost as long as I’ve been here.”

Before he could go on, I interjected. “Us? I’m not anything like you or that freak parade calling himself a genie.”

Mike pointed a long finger straight up where the Vandugga or whatever they were might very well have been at that exact moment. “Somebody thinks differently, Jack. Those ships have the tech to find you and do the kinds of things to your body and soul that would turn a serial killer into a celibate monk. I’ve been on one once. I know what they do. You’re special, and that alone makes you worth saving in my book.”

I didn’t know what to say. I knew that Mike had to be wrong in his estimation of me. I could just introduce him to Liz’s family. They’d happily tell him that there was nothing unique about me.

Mike zipped the bags closed and disappeared into his room where he came out with another bag already packed with supplies. “With my kind of hobby I always have to keep one of these packed,” he grinned.

I caught a motion on the floor by my feet, and looked to see the dark brown eyes of a vole starring up into mine like it wanted to tell me something. Damn that was uncanny. “Ah Mike,” I said, “One of your fur buddies is here.”

Mike took the thing into his hand and nodded knowingly as the rodent launched into a long string of unintelligible, gibbering squeaks. “Just as I thought,” he said and took a breath before translating for me. “The Vandugga have congregated in the sky above the cemetery. They’ve sent landing teams down, which means the Nightwatch are on the prowl.” He cursed, and then to the vole said, “Please tell Max to meet us at the usual site.”

The vole let out another stream of burbbling squeaks and padded quickly out of the room and through some unknown hole into the cold night.

“Quite useful, those voles,” Mike said. “Their size makes them hard to detect and they put out a scent that interferes with the demon’s searchers. I helped stop a serial killer that had been stalking magical animals. Called himself Cat-O-Nine-Tails.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Go Mike. How’d you stop him?

“Most of the credit goes to the voles. Once they followed him home, all I did was set him up for a IRS tax audit.”

“Tax audit doesn’t sound too threatening,” I said.

Mike chuckled. “The Infernal Revenue Service doesn’t play around in this Principality. It’s run by a demon. One that feeds off of envy, vanity, and greed. It can’t have anything like a killer upsetting the apple cart. Cat-O-Nine-Tails liked to prey on humans too, though they weren’t his preferred targets. He blamed it all on a Cat Nip addiction. I worked hard to track him down and almost got myself killed in the process.”

I could tell by the look on his face that a lot of bad blood bubbled below the surface of that topic, so I left him alone for a bit. He needed some time to think before we made our next move, anyway. Eventually we sat and talked as he gathered his thoughts. When he was finally ready, he led me down a hallway with smooth concrete walls lined with utility lights spaced at wide, irregular intervals. At times I had to keep a hand extended in order to feel the wall beside me so I didn’t stumble in the dark. I lost all sense of time, and when Mike placed a cold hand on my shoulder, I nearly screamed. If you’ve ever nearly leapt out of bed when your significant other used your back as a heating pad for their ice cold feet, let me tell you it has nothing on the undead flesh of a creature of the night.

Mike leaned close to me and whispered, “Be quiet, we have to go topside now.” He had a better chance of keeping my silence if he wore gloves in the future.

I followed Mike up a vertical row of metal steps. Iron grated on concrete as he lifted a manhole cover with one arm and pushed it aside. I emerged into a narrow alley sided by windowless brick walls rising thirty feet into the night sky. Mike stood with his eyes closed, listening for any signs of pursuit or discovery. After carefully placing the iron cover back into its seatings, I joined him, and he said quietly, “Welcome to the lair of the beast.”

Only a few cars passed us as we walked down a nearly deserted main street that ran between a row of quaintly decorated shops, hairstyle boutiques, and restaurants, all of which screamed affluent homespun downtown America. The lair of the beast looked downright bourgeois if you asked me. “So . . . this is the domain of the demon?” I asked, looking up at a barber shop sign proclaiming specials for dads and their children that hung next to another for a bakery advertising fresh breads and homemade European hot chocolate.

Sinister.

Across the street from us, an upper-end Italian restaurant heralded made-from-scratch crusts, pastas, and exquisite cannoli. Beside it sat a consignment shop with several pricey wedding gowns adorning display mannequins behind plate glass windows.

What evil bastards.

“Mike, this place doesn’t seem so bad.” I knew I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and all that. I felt really grateful to be away from the cemetery hideout. In times of stress, I always preferred to be in motion. But this place looked as if the worst it suffered from was the thick veneer of upper middle class ostentation. Except for the malevolent presence of the airships in the sky about two miles away, that was.

“It’s early yet. In a few more hours the Vandugga will withdraw with the sunrise. The things powering them don’t particularly like the sunlight, so we will have that on our side, but we need to hurry so we can cross over into a darker Principality.”

“Oh, right,” I said. He was a vampire after all. “Will it be any warmer there?” I asked. After all, I was cold.

“We will stop at Walmart.”

“They have those here?” I asked.

Mike nodded his head. “They’re everywhere, though the demon here doesn’t like them—too plebian.”

We continued walking out of the town and past a number of pricey sub developments, and as the neighborhoods grew farther and farther apart, I asked, “So how is it that a demon rules over a place that looks so . . . normal?”

Mike admonished me, “Remember that I told you how looks can be deceiving, Jack. This demon likes to keep his subjects’ sins at a low simmer. What better way than to encourage banality and conformism. People line up in droves to live here in the heart of suburban damnation.”

I was confused. “What kind of people?”

A look of revulsion crossed Mike’s face. “Yuppies.”

I thought of the snobbish condescension I got from Liz and her parents who never failed to brag about all their expensive things, so I understood.

Mike went on. “The people living here will sell out their mothers in order to keep up a successful façade. The lengths they’ll go to in order to look the proper part set off chain reactions of mediocre avarice, deceit, envy, and snobbery that the demon revels in. That’s why he guards the security of this place so forcefully. If people are exposed to real terrors—the kinds of things that draw them out of their narrow preoccupations and high brow aspirations—like a serial killer or blatant demonic infestation, they’ll be forced to make a moral choice and possibly take a side that requires a love for something higher than themselves.”

Looking around at the dark houses arranged in clusters of tastefully landscaped lawns, I noticed how perfectly resplendent the flower beds were and absolutely sterile the front yards seemed; they were completely barren of children’s toys, whimsy, or spontaneity. God forbid someone leave an offending item of lawn furniture out to annoy the neighbors.

The low growl of an approaching engine alerted me that we no longer had the road to ourselves. Mike pulled me off of the asphalt and into the thick cover of bushes on the other side of the ditch. When he placed a finger over his mouth, I nodded. The steady increase of headlights nearly blinded me, but the glare cut off abruptly as not one, but three SUVs with tinted windshields and the initials H.A. emblazoned across their doors turned sharply and tore into the driveway of a generically tasteful cape cod. I watched as five heavy bodied men dressed in black uniforms poured out of the vehicles, stormed onto the cape cod’s porch, and began battering the door open. Muffled shouts of surprise and children crying within drifted across the lawn. My hands clenched and I nearly shouted, “What the hell?”

Mike shook his head and shushed me. “Keep quiet and just watch; there’s nothing we can do for them.”

I looked helplessly in Mike’s direction. His granite hard face somehow managed to look tense and strained. Several minutes later a man and woman in their nightclothes were lead out along with two weeping children that looked around with terrified eyes.

A smartly dressed woman in a tightly fitting business suit got out of the second SUV’s passenger side and strode with a harsh and stiff gait. The woman in nightclothes saw her and immediately cried out, “Please! Please! We were taking care of it!”

The woman in the business suit wore her hair back in a severe braid. She was beautiful in a cold, wintery way. Her taut face held no lines of sympathy or kindness. When she spoke, her voice drew across my nerves like a rusty nail across an eyeball. “You’ve had twenty-four hours to comply with our requests. I’ve received numerous complaints from your neighbors on this matter. I’m afraid this has now become a matter of collection, Mrs. Fitzgerald.”

The woman motioned to the men to put the family into the vehicles, but one child refused to go and grabbed ahold of the mother’s pajama legs, wailing pathetically. I strained not to move, biting my tongue in the process. Pulling the child—a little boy—away from his mother proved too difficult for just one man, and when a second one joined in the effort, he backhanded the boy across his face with so much force I heard the slap as if it had happened right next to me.

“Hey!” I bellowed, unaware I had left the concealment of the bushes. “You can’t do that to a child. Come over here and I’ll make you my bitch!”

Everyone across the road froze as their attention turned toward me . . . everyone except the ice woman in the suit, that is. When her eyes locked onto mine I felt as if someone had just poured a bucket of cold water over my head. Behind me, Mike let loose with a string of expletives, and I did the only thing that seemed logical at the time.

I raised my fist and flipped her the bird.

“Get him!” she shrieked.

I felt Mike yank on my shirt so hard he nearly gave me whiplash. “Idiot! Run!” I turned and followed Mike, charging pell-mell into the dense forest of pines behind us.

“What the hell was that all about?” I shouted as we ran.

“That was the demon’s Homeowner’s Association! And you’ve just made my job of keeping you safe much harder.” Mike didn’t sound winded at all.

Behind us I heard the sounds of rough pursuit as large men tore through the low growth among the trees. “We have a good lead on them,” I said, having to measure my breathing so I could talk and run at the same time.

“They aren’t men,” Mike snapped. “They’re the same things that were looking for you earlier!”

I strained my muscles to propel myself further, to try to open the gap separating us, but no matter how much effort I spent, they were slowly narrowing the distance. I do not know how long we ran, maybe an hour or more. My legs felt like they were on fire as the forests and subdivisions we cut through grew increasingly rural. Every time I looked back I saw the same hulking figures with the bodies of men drawing closer. Then I saw something that nearly made me loose control of my bowels. The lead figure drew a strangely shaped gun.

I punched Mike in the shoulder to tell him what I saw.

“Into the trees,” he said. “They know we’re close, so we’ve got to put something between us and them.”

Closer to what?

My lungs felt like they were about to melt and run out of my nose. As I dodged between trees, I didn’t know how much longer I could keep this up until I heard a strange, keening wail behind me and an explosion took off half of a tree trunk in front of me, convincing my legs to drag the rest of my body along with them.

Behind me I heard a gun go off, but instead of the sharp report of a pistol, what I heard was another shrill wail. A sharp hiss shot past my head and I watched as a blurred object struck another tree in the distance, cutting it in half with an ear-splitting rumble.

Before I mustered enough wind to scream in mortal terror, I suddenly felt as if I had collided with an invisible wall made of gelatin.

This time I did scream.

Everything around me blurred. Colors became indistinct and I struggled to breathe air that became dense, like running into a strong head wind. Yet as soon as it was there, it was gone. The pressure lifted, and I stumbled when I made it through, barley managing to catch myself before going all the way to the ground.

It took real willpower to right myself because I was breathing like an asthmatic racehorse. Mike grabbed me before I started running. “It’s okay, Jack. We’ve crossed over.”

All the muscles in my body quivered and twitched as adrenaline coursed through my veins, turning my limbic system into a fireworks display. “What the hell happened back there?!” I shouted. “Those were children. Children, Mike!”

Mike nodded his head sadly. “And that is why only a fool buys a house with a Homeowner’s Association. The only thing worse are gated communities.”

“What did they do to deserve that?” I panted.

“Oh, I suspect someone complained about the chalk drawings on the driveway. Hopscotch as far as I could tell, but it was dark,” he said matter-of-factly.

My face twisted into an expression that it still hurts to think about. I was disgusted and incredulous . . . I was discredulous. “You mean this Homeowner’s group took that family because they let their kids play hopscotch on the driveway?!”

Mike nodded his head. “Mmm-hmm. That and I suspect because the garden hose hadn’t been completely rolled up.”

I wanted to scream or hit something, and then after a moment’s more reflection, I wanted to scream and hit something. I decided to ask Mike where we were, and he answered by pointing a long corpse’s finger into the night sky where two moons lit the world in a banshee light.

Chapter 6

God For Harry, England, And St. George

 

For the third time, a low, plaintive howl cut into the two-moon night, raising the hackles on the back of my neck. I half expected Mike to morph into a double of Bella Lugosi or Christopher Lee and begin rhapsodizing about the virtues of his nighttime brethren, but he said nothing about the creature’s distant, lonely cry.

Instead, he wore a mysterious smile and wondered how his voles were doing.

Tales of vampires allied with predators of the night such as wolves, bats, and rats are legion. But voles? Rats I get. They’re creepy; they grow to large sizes and can be vicious. Voles are more like mice. They’re creepy too, but in a gross look-what-they-did-in-my-box-of-cereal sort of way. As we walked through a dimly lit nightscape where anything might lie in wait for us, I wondered if maybe I’d have been better off with vampire of the Bella Lugosi caliber than a retired tax accountant with a soft spot for supernatural vermin.

Mike was strong. I had to give him that. But what else could the man do? Sure he scared me when I met him in the cemetery, but if Winnie the Pooh showed up in a cemetery wearing a cape and telling you he was about to drink your blood, I think you’d pee in your pants.

Until you found out he was stuffed with fluff.

The way my night was going, I prayed Mike didn’t have an ounce of fluff in him.

My legs hurt. My head hurt. I was cold, hungry, and recently informed that I had been murdered and might never go back home. More than anything, I wanted my bed and to beat the bastard that ordered the genie to bring me here.

“Don’t put anything past him, Jack,” Mike said as we followed a dirt path to God alone knew where. “The genie may answer to a master, but it’s always up to the genie to decide how those orders get to be carried out.”

“Like your former wife,” I said, absently.

“You have to be very specific when dealing with genies or making any kind of wager or bet in the Playground. Honestly, it’s better to just hire a lawyer to submit it in a document, get it signed in triplicate and notarized by a demi-god.”

“Oh, is that all?”

Mike rounded on me; if his face hadn’t been corpse pale it would have been as red as Eve’s apple. “You aren’t paying a bit of attention to what I’m trying to tell you!”

That brought me back into the moment. I couldn’t hide my misgivings. “Well it’s not like I’m likely to live through this when neither one of us has any real fangs, is it?’

Mike’s face lost all expression, and I knew instantly that I had said the wrong thing. “Look . . . “ I tried to apologize.

Mike held a hand up and turned from me. He stalked away and I had to jog to catch up. I wanted to live long enough to find a way back to my normal, whitewashed, hayseed life. By the time he slowed, my joints were aflame and I deeply regretted my big, stupid mouth. My momma raised me right. I was supposed to be a Southern Gentleman.

“I’m sorry,” I tried again. “I just wish we had more firepower is all.”

Mike took in a deep breath, waited several seconds, and let it out slowly. When he turned back to face me, he spoke quietly, “Firepower is good, but do you think I would be alive today if I had relied on that to protect me?

How was I supposed to know? Maybe his bad foot odor was what kept all the creepy-crawlies away. I felt so lost here, and the abrupt change of my situation had me reeling. I couldn’t help feeling like I would be much better off if I had something as strong as a bazooka but ten times meaner on my side.

I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t know how anything works in the Playground,” I told him. If some demon was after me, there had to be some kind of massive mistake. And that made me scared when I thought about it too long, which right about then was every twenty seconds.

Mike thumped me on my head with one of his abnormally long, bony fingers. “That’s exactly my point, Jack. You have to use your brains if you want to make it through even the next few days.”

I wanted to think about something else. Really, I did. “The genie seemed to say he was answering to more than one person,” I said.

Mike grunted. “Two hands on the tiller? That’s got to be driving him crazy.”

I told Mike everything that happened from the moment I met the genie to the moment I punched him in the face, paying careful attention to repeat everything the genie said to me. I ended by telling him, “I’m pretty sure he brought me to your hideout on purpose.”

Mike’s face became shrewd, and his posture changed subtly. “That was dangerous for him. If he’s already working with a set of contradictory orders, dropping you at the doorstep of another person who still has two more wishes to make would be nearly suicidal.”

“But don’t you have to be holding the lamp in order to command a genie?”

Mike shook his head. “I used to think so, but I’ve had other run-ins with him. He has a habit of dropping off his victims in the Playground. I think it’s enough to have triggered this genie’s lamp to bind him to you. It all depends on the geas that’s been placed upon him. The fact that he is bound to a lamp at all is someone’s idea of a practical joke. Genies are only bound to objects by magical force. I’ve wondered for a while if the genie has been trying to defy his masters. This one especially is always up for a malicious joke.”

That was just great. I was brought here by a genie because someone wanted me gone, but the genie seemed to have an agenda of his own that very likely did not conform to his master’s (or masters’?) plans. And I was currently the target of a Demon and his Homeowners Association. Now I knew what a chess piece felt like.

There had to be some kind of mistake. I was a nobody. When Mike heard my misgivings, he said, “There’s just too much that we don’t know.”

To our left, I heard something moving rapidly through the woods and grimaced as Mike’s clamp-like hands seized my shoulder and forced me behind him. The sounds of approach grew steadily until I saw a dark shape streaking easily through the trees and prepared to run or fight. Relief filled me a moment later when I realized I didn’t have to do either. The dark shape was Mike’s dog, Max.

“Ah, Max!” the vampire called out with delight. “I am glad you made it!”

I watched in fascination as the dog’s edges blurred and melted as it drew closer. It appeared to be made of living wax. Slowly, the animal’s shape became completely amorphous, and as it lengthened and grew, it took on the dimensions of a man. At last a naked man with wild hair and an unkempt beard crawled on all fours in front of us until the transformation was complete, at which point he stood smoothly and brushed himself off.

“I barely made it, Mike,” the man said in a brisk and gravelly voice. “The boundaries are all guarded and the southern border around Cary and Apex crawls with Nightwatch and HA enforcers.”

“I think we have our new young friend to thank for some of that,” Mike said.

The naked man gave me an annoyed glance and started growling. I looked everywhere except at him and his exposed touch-me-nots.

“Don’t be too cross with him, Max. An old friend of ours brought him here just before you stumbled onto him tonight.”

As Max looked at me, his eyes narrowed in anger like it was my fault. “You mean I lost my chance to kill him again?”

“Step in line,” I said bluntly.

Max snorted rudely.

“It seems like we all have something in common,” Mike said jovially before introducing us. “Max here was cursed into a werewolf by the demon that runs the Principality we just escaped from.”

“Then I was cursed by that lamp rat into the animal you saw before,” Max said bitterly.

“Max unfortunately told the genie that he didn’t want to be a werewolf anymore,” Mike said. “He didn’t specify what he wanted to be.”

“So now you’re a wereschnauzer,” I observed.

If it were possible for Max’s face to sour any more, it did. “Fat lot of good it does me,” Max spat. “At least most things left me alone when I was a werewolf. The things I used to chase now chase me, and I have horrible urges to scratch my balls with my front teeth.”

I winced. I didn’t want to think about what he did with his tongue. “I’d . . . um, shake, but—“

“But I’m naked,” Max said morosely. “I know. I get that all the time.”

At least Max was fast, and had a disguise. I’d take that over my present state.

“Mike, there’s a group of Nightwatch goons about a mile from here, and they’ve got a prisoner.”

“Taking people outside of their Principality or Barony is expressly forbidden by the Supernatural Compancts,” Mike said slowly.

Max nodded his head. “I didn’t want to get close enough to see who or what they had,” he said and grimaced. “Sometimes it’s better not to know.”

Mike bowed his head and grew quiet in thought and a grim determination colored his next words. “If the Nightwatchmen are out of their principality, they have no power.”

Max let out an agitated sound. “Not another rescue mission,” he complained.

“We must each do our part,” Mike said with a tired note. Something passed between Mike and Max that I did not understand. Max nodded in my direction. “We bringing him?”

“We have to,” Mike responded firmly. “The Demon wants him, and I won’t let him have the boy.”

Max sighed. “Just keep low and stay out of our way,” he warned me gruffly.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said sourly. It wasn’t like I had any way of defending myself anyway. Besides, the moment something popped out and started eating one of them I was running the other way.

With speed and vigor.

“What’s the Nightwatch?” I asked.

“Enforcers that do the demon’s dirty work,” Max spat. “The Homeowner’s Association is local. It runs the hoity-toity neighborhoods around Raleigh. The Nightwatch works a much bigger area—all the way to Charlotte and Greensboro.”

I couldn’t see how anyone lived with that kind of mess. Max led us through a tall pine forest interspersed here and there by night loving deciduous trees. The pine straw cushioned our steps so that our passing made little sound. The two moons above us bathed the world in an eerie shade of white. I focused my attention on listening for any sounds of threats but nothing revealed itself to me until we got about three-fourths of a mile further into the woods.

Max raised his hand signaling that we were close. The forest around me provided little in the way of cover except for scraggly saplings struggling for any meager ray of direct moonlight able to penetrate through the treetops above. Max pointed forward, and as I peered into the direction he indicated, my eyes detected the light of a campfire.

We proceeded slowly, hardly making a sound thanks to the soft forest carpet beneath our feet. Our quarry soon came into view where three men sat around a low campfire warming their hands, apparently unconcerned about unwelcome visitors straying into their midst. On the opposite side of our location, a beautiful young lady wearing a torn dress sat on the ground tied by ropes to the base of a large tree. One of her eyes appeared swollen shut, and deep, dark bruises marred her crisp features. She looked as if she had put up quite a fight because a number of defensive wounds ran along her forearms.

For some reason, when I looked at her I felt a strange draw that had nothing to do with her condition. I felt like I ought to know her. The sight of her, helpless and all, made my heart spasm. I became lost in longing to untie her and set her free.

I had to shake my head to drive the urge away. I was in over my head, and the best thing to do was stay put, just like Mike told me to do. I’m not the brave type. I might have given you that impression when I flipped the Homeowners Association lady the bird, but her goons were bullying a family and hitting kids. That kind of thing is enough to make Gandhi roll up his sleeves and start slitting throats. Everyone has their limits. I’m not the sort of guy that shouts Geronimo and leaps into a pond and then looks on the way down to see if it’s filled with water or crocodiles. When I’m not acting spontaneously, I like to be careful.

That’s all I’m saying.

Problem for me was, when Mike and Max started moving in on the Nightwatchmen and their victim, my conscience started nagging at me. I really do aspire to be a Southern Gentleman, and honestly, two against three weren’t bad odds. But the voice of my inner robot started warning me that two might not be enough. Especially if the two included a naked schnauzer-man and a fangless vampire. I’d have felt better if someone had turned two clones of Arnold Schwarzenegger loose on the abductors. Mike and Max might very well have had the element of surprise on their sides, but I felt guilty just being a bystander in this freak party.

So I decided maybe I should have a closer look.

I moved toward the spot where Mike and Max were huddled together, doubtlessly forming their plan of attack. Thankfully, the firelight had the kidnappers night-blinded, so they remained ignorant of our presence. Yet when I got a better view of the brutes I felt uneasy. From my previous viewpoint, the three resembled large, well-built men dressed similarly to the Homeowners Association thugs . . . light khakis and dark polo shirts tucked snuggly in. The belts around their waists looked like genuine leather, and the shoes they wore were soft leather slip-ons. Now that I was a bit closer, I saw strange distortions that lent their faces an irregular, almost Cro-Magnon quality. Shadows cast by the dancing flames made them appear downright ghastly.

They looked like post-apocalyptic yuppie assassins.

Once Mike and Max made their decision, they began sneaking in a semicircle around their targets. Mike moved to the left and Max to the right. My sore muscles grumbled as they grew tense. I couldn’t help imagining that the worst was about to happen. The Nightwatchmen might not have any powers outside of their master’s territory, but they were still big enough to make a body builder jealous. I became less certain every step Mike and Max took that they would be able to handle this alone.

I muttered under my breath and moved forward while keeping an eye on what was happening. I still didn’t know for sure what I was going to do if things went south.

Max approached the Nightwatchmen but didn’t look especially tense. I thought maybe he would grab a stick or create a diversion to lead the Nightwatchmen away, but that’s not what he did.

Max just sauntered naked into the group with his junk hanging out, dangling like a lazy elephant’s trunk. He raised a hand in greeting, and in a pleasantly conversational voice, said, “Hi! I’m here for a lady! Can I have that one?”

The goons looked up and stared mutely at Max for several long seconds trying to figure out how tough bruisers like themselves could be mistaken for pimps instead of the hired thugs that they were.

“Look guys, I already took my clothes off and the cold’s not doing me any favors if you know what I mean. So if I can just talk to the one who is in charge, I’d appreciate it.”

The goon in the center stood up with a snarl, as Mike said, “That’s all we needed to know.”

From the opposite side of the gathering, Mike exploded from the darkness with his face set in a rabid snarl. He leapt a good eight feet in the air, clearing the kidnapper to the left of the leader and landed like a cat. The other two barked out surprised exclamations as Mike wrapped his arms around the leader and in one savage twist removed his head. The thing’s torso erupted in a geyser of a wet, glowing and silvery substance that billowed upward in a rapidly dispersing cloud.

At the same moment, Max melted down into the shape of a snarling schnauzer and began biting at the feet of the closest Nightwatchman to him. Mike came at the thing and pushed the still standing, decapitated body aside. He rapidly moved in to help Max.

The other Nightwatchman retreated back toward a rifle leaning against a nearby tree and I saw this as my moment to move. It was now or never. With a loud and rousing cry of “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!” I charged, hoping that my sudden use of Shakespeare would shock the goon into confusion.

Instead, the thug looked up at me with enraged eyes as I barreled toward him. I held my upraised fist ready to do unto the kidnapper as he had clearly done unto the helpless lady. Fear and adrenaline raged through me with such force that that I felt a giddy sense of exhilaration.

Until the Nightwatchman ducked my swing and took ahold of me with pointed fingertips.

I grunted and yelped out in alarm as the thing effortlessly lifted me into the air. I felt him release me the moment I went airborne. As I summersaulted over the campfire, a detached part of me noted the surprised and slightly annoyed look on Mike’s face. I wondered fleetingly if it was going to hurt when I landed, but at least I had the satisfaction of knowing I had just made Henry the Fifth proud. On the ground, sprinkled around the fire, little flecks of crystal glimmered, and I had the passing thought, How pretty . . .

Chapter 7

A Hearse Is A Hearse, Of curse, Of Curse

 

I didn’t want to open my eyes, but the glare of the streetlights kept interfering with my desire to not be conscious. I was in an automobile of some sort. I could tell as much by the engine’s hum and the rata-tat-tat of the asphalt beneath the tires as by the driver’s constant swearing as she navigated the vehicle through busy traffic. When I tried to sit up I heard Mike’s admonishment to stay down. I mumbled something about thinking I had to puke. When I felt the vehicle lurch to the right and shake furiously as it decelerated on the roadway’s shoulder, I knew I had to.

From the driver’s side of the vehicle came the stern voice of our short-tempered driver. “Okay, somebody get Upchuckles out of here before he makes me sick! I can’t take the smell of vomit! Get him out now!”

A moment later the door at my feet was unceremoniously jerked open and I was dragged by my ankles halfway out of the cabin into the cold night air. I sat up and pushed a set of arms out of the way as I propelled the rest of my body out of the door and threw up. Footsteps approached as I emptied my stomach of two non-alcoholic Bloody Maries. I shoved the owner of the feet away when they got too close. “Get the hell away from me and don’t manhandle me again!” I shouted once I was done.

“Here sparrow,” the female said as she thrust a handful of napkins into one of my hands. “Take these and clean yourself up.”

I took them and cleaned my mouth off, thankful that spicy tomato juice tasted the same coming up as it did going down. An upright posture had to wait a few more minutes before I gathered enough of my wits to stand. When I did, my body kept going the other way and the driver cried out, “Grab him!”

A pair of hands from a different, more masculine set of arms stopped me from going all the way over. “Oh . . . thanks, Mike.”

“I knew you weren’t ready to get up yet,” he said mildly as he guided me back into the vehicle’s cabin.

The vehicle turned out to be a massively armored black SUV of the general type driven by the H.A. squad back in the demon’s Principality—or what would have corresponded to central North Carolina in my world. I thought it actually was still called North Carolina, but in name only. What we had just escaped from sure as hell wasn’t one of the thirteen original colonies. When I gingerly managed to seat myself without throwing up again, I moaned pitifully, “Oh Jesus I feel awful; how long have I been out?”

“Long enough for us to drag your sorry ass a mile through the woods and drive a hundred miles, bird boy,” the driver said unsympathetically. “And I would appreciate it if you don’t say that name again.”

I already wanted to kill her and I hadn’t even gotten a good look at the speaker yet. “What name? Jesus?”

A sound like a goose yacking and a dull nail scraping across a chalkboard erupted from beside my open door. “Are you deaf or stupid?” the driver spat.

When I held my eyes open long enough to identify the angry female driver, I wished I hadn’t. Standing beside me was the helpless, innocent Nightwatch victim I got knocked unconscious rescuing. She stood about five feet tall, with long chestnut brown hair that spilled in curly tangles to her shoulders and a thin, attractive face made even more attractive by a narrow pair of perky lips. The blouse she wore had been torn during her captivity, nearly allowing two small, perfectly sculpted breasts to all but spill out. But for her constant shuffling and drawing the top back over her chest, they most certainly would have tumbled out. I felt too lousy to give her an appreciative second look.

“Hey flyboy, I’m up here,” she snapped at me.

“You’re welcome,” I shot back, tempted to deliberately ogle her out of spite.

The driver sniffed and stamped petulantly. I opened my mouth to ask her what her problem was, but the words froze before I managed to produce them the moment I noticed she stood on hooves instead of feet. Two small horns poked through the hair on the top of her head above her bangs. Then I saw that two bat-like wings were folded tightly against her back and a long, twitchy tail extended from the bottom of her backside to a point four feet behind her where it ended in a sharply barbed tip. I also noticed a faint aroma of brimstone.

“Who the hell are you?” I demanded.

A naughty smile played across her symmetrically perfect mouth. “I’m Angelica.”

“Angelica?” I asked, placing an emphasis on the syllables forming angelic. “Oh no you’re not!”

Our driver tinkled with dark laughter.

“We just got away from one of her kind,” I said, moving to unbuckle my seatbelt and preparing to hitchhike a ride to anywhere away from the Queen of the Damned. Mike placed a calming hand on my shoulder. “It’s okay, Jack. She’s not exactly what you think.

“Well what is she then?” I asked, wincing as I continued to toy with the seatbelt release.

“I’m a member of the Sisterhood of Reformed Succubi,” she declared, but there was enough uncertainty in her voice to make me question the “reformed” part.

“You’re a succubus.” I said slowly and turned to Mike. “We’re in the car with a succubus and you’re telling me that it’s okay?” I couldn’t control the rising pitch in my voice. Within one day I had met a vampire, a wereschnauser, the infernal minions of a demon, and now one was getting into the SUV in front of me. I felt tapped out. I was ready for my supernatural meter to go from Dawn of the Dead to “I Declare This House Cleansed.”

“She’s not entirely a succubus,” he told me in calm, soothing words.

“I really don’t have very many of my old powers anymore,” she said.

“Why would that be?” I asked, making a mental note to find a Bible or a couple of vials of holy water.

“She can’t tempt men,” Mike said.

“Because I don’t think I like men anymore,” she seconded him.

“And that makes a difference?” I groaned.

“It does when you’re actually only a half-succubus,” Angelica added. “And possibly sexually confused.”

Her voice may have trailed off, but the confusion in it was contagious. “There are an awful lot of ‘possiblies’ in that,” I pointed out while clutching my gut.

“I told you I’m half-succubus!” she growled.

So now I had myself quite the trifecta of halves. “Well don’t go leading us into temptation or anything like that,” I warned her.

Angelica gave me a pouty look in the rearview mirror. “The night is young,” she said mirthfully.

“Miiiiiike,” I started darkly.

“Children, children,” Mike admonished us. “It looks like we will be spending a bit of time together, so let’s do try to get along.”

Maybe we can tie them both up,” Max said, eliciting a hiss from Angelica.

“Maybe I can have you neutered,” Angelica growled.

“Maybe we can just talk about what we’re doing next,” I offered hopefully.

“We’re going to Walmart,” everyone answered in unison. I wasn’t ready for that response, though knowing that everyone in the SUV was in agreement about something actually did make me feel a bit better.

“We need to get you some clothes,” Mike said. “You stick out, and right now, that’s the last thing you need.”

Everyone around me grunted in agreement, but I almost laughed. I was surrounded by a group of B-movie monster freaks, and they all thought I was the one that stuck out. After all, I was just a normal southern boy with reality displacement issues. But as I caught Mike looking at my clothes, I started to think about how I was dressed. So much had happened to me today that I honestly hadn’t considered what I was wearing except to note how thin my clothes were, and they weren’t warm enough for the cold night air. I checked myself out and wished I hadn’t.

I had on a thin pair of pen striped business pants, a leather belt that had begun to crack and blister along its surface, and an uncomfortable jacket that was on the verge of falling apart over a dirty white cotton business shirt that had large, unsavory, and dull-colored stains running down the front. Indeed, the stains made me queasy just looking at them, because I had the impression that they had been produced by weeping body fluids—and knowing what the genie had done to me, I didn’t want to think about where those weeping body fluids had come from.

“Oh crap,” I said. I hadn’t realized until that moment that I was wearing the clothes I had been buried in. This observation was underscored by the fact that they were covered in splotchy patches of mold and mildew. I wanted to be sick again, and Mike must have recognized what was going through my mind, because he told me, “We’re almost there.”

I rolled down the rear window enough to catch the fresh air rubbing against the SUV as it barreled down the interstate, and I forced myself to focus on our current situation. “Now that we’ve helped get Angelica here away from those Nightwatch thugs, they’re still looking for several of us. How safe are we going to be in this principality?”

From behind the driver’s wheel, Angelica snorted with laughter.

“You’re in the Playground,” Max said with a dry smile. You’ll do well to remember that you’ll never be safe again. Not since you’ve gotten yourself noticed by a local Baron.”

“We were followed for a while,” Angelic said, “but turn about is a real bitch. I used the SUV’s defensive systems against the bastards.”

“Defensive systems?” I asked dumbly. I was about to ask what she meant when something heavy and metallic slammed into the right side of our vehicle, throwing me hard against the side door. I instinctively took ahold of the ceiling grab-handle and locked my legs in the space beneath the driver’s seat as the SUV took another hit, this time just on the other side of my door.

“Oh no the hell you’re NOT!” Angelica spat venomously, fighting with the steering wheel to keep the vehicle from rolling. She jabbed her finger at a series of buttons on the console, and the intense beam of a searchlight came on. Angelica quickly used her left hand to push a control, directing the beam back toward our attacker, and she snapped at me, “Tell me what you see, Sparrow!”

I looked out of my window and saw what looked like an armored hearse with steel-plate colored windows and spikes jutting from its side like some mechanized, vintage, Mad Max movie replica. Through its tinted windows I barely made out the shiny plastic body of a mannequin stiffly driving the vehicle. “A hearse being driven by a crash test dummy,” I said, sucking in a breath as one on the other side rammed us. “And there are more than one!”

Angelica slammed on the breaks, forcing the hearses to shoot past us and sending my face into the padded headrest in front of me. She then nailed her hoof down on the accelerator, propelling us forward into the rear of the closest hearse with enough force to send the thing spinning out of control across the road. When it hit the soft shoulder, the hearse attempted to veer back into the outside lane but overcompensated, skidding sideways into the center of the road. At the same time this happened, I watched as a loud swooshing racket erupted from an outside rear panel of the SUV and a bright missile streaked toward the thing’s frame, hitting it broadside and detonating with an explosion that struck me in the chest like a boxer’s right uppercut. The blast sent the hearse spinning through the air in a whirling pinwheel of flaming ruin.

“What the hell was that?!” I screamed.

“Morticians!” Angelica spat the term like a swear word.

“Mercenaries!” Max growled. “Robotic funeral directors for hire.”

“For a fee, they’ll direct anyone you choose to their own funeral,” Mike clarified.

“For a really large fee,” Max added through clenched teeth.

“Cripes,” I squeaked.

Angelica let out a loud, ululating war whoop as she pulled up next to the second hearse. The robot’s head swung smoothly to the right, and I could tell by the thing’s silhouette that it was staring directly at me. Angelica shouted, “Under the seat, fly boy!”

It only took me a second to process her meaning, and when I bent to run my arm into the space below my butt, I found a hard plastic case pushed toward the back. Upon retrieving it, I discovered a number of strangely shaped pistols recessed firmly in thick foam molds. I pulled one out and my eyes immediately opened wide. This was the same kind of weapon the Homeowners Association goons had used to blast trees apart as they chased us out of the demon’s principality.

“Watch where you point that thing!” Max screamed, ducking his head down to keep it away from the pistol’s muzzle.

“Right.”

I rolled the window down and stuck the short barrel out of the window. The hearse veered toward us, and when it slammed against us, metal screeched as its spikes bit into the SUV’s armor. Sparks spat out across the road, lighting up the hearse like a strobe as its driver attempted to grind the lethal projections into our vehicle.

I took aim and squeezed the trigger, and the recoil nearly took my hand off. A brilliant bolt of energy instantly surged into the hearse’s passenger side door and exploded inside the compartment, sending thin, crackling forks of electrical force coruscating across the robot’s torso. I gritted my teeth and took firmer hold of the weapon in both hands. The recoil sent sharp needlepoints of pain shooting up my forearms. My aim was true, however. The round of energy hit the hearse’s engine compartment like an elephant running through tin foil. Dull red fire kachunked around the seams of the hood and geysered through the crumpled impact hole. I saw the cab fill with flames and oily smoke, and I watched with satisfaction as the technical monstrosity veered off the road and struck the guardrail with force.

“Yeeee!” Angelica cried out. “I’m keeping this SUV!!!”

My nerves were lit up like a honky-tonk neon sign, and my hands shook from adrenaline and pain. I quickly put the pistol in the inside pocket of my burial coat. At least I now had some firepower on my side. When I rolled up the window beside me, I blurted out, “I’m sure they have a tracking device on this thing!”

Angelica flashed back in an annoyed voice, “And I’m sure I disabled it.”

“How did those things know where to find us, then?” I demanded. When I looked at Mike, his face held a troubled and pensive expression.

“Get us onto a back road,” he said. “Quickly, please. I don’t like this either, Jack. This is extreme to be just a case of a simple principality troublemaker.” Max and Mike exchanged an unsettling look.

“Apostate?” Max asked.

Mike’s voice became darkly serious. “I have to wonder.”

Before I got lost in the Playground jargon, I held my hand up quickly and said, “I don’t know what that is over here, people.”

“Supernatural beings that refuse to play by the rules,” Mike said. “The Supernatural Compacts were set up a long time ago as a way of making sure that powerful predators—demons, zombies, vampires, politicians, journalists, and the like—got along with a minimum of conflict. The Pacts established the principalities and baronies that make up the majority of territories on this plane of existence. The Pacts also set up the rules governing the patterns of coexistence between supernatural beings and mundane humans.”

“Is that why the Playground loosely resembles the world we come from?” I asked.

Mike hesitated in a way that told me the topic was more complex than that. “Yes and no. Since nearly everyone here can be considered prey in one way or another to the natural inhabitants of the Playground, the Powers that crafted the Pacts made sure that most humans living here could live in a reasonably stable world—”

“Didn’t want to rile up the herd too much,” Angelica piped in. “Probably because panic tends to make meat taste gamey,” she said absently.

“So normal people are kind of like livestock for the barons, and the Playground is the farm,” I said with a sinking feeling in the pit of my gut. “That’s horrible. I want to go home.”

“Most people will live their lives here without ever experiencing a noticeable moment of threat or danger,” Mike said. “Not much more so than what you get back in our world.”

“Most?” I asked. “What happens to the other fraction that get’s culled from the herd? How do you stand this place?” I demanded.

“And this is what makes him an apostate,” Angelica said in a sing-song voice and then turned back to wink at me. “I think I’m honestly impressed, fly-boy. I didn’t see that one coming.”

“What makes me one of these apostates?” I asked firmly, letting out an explosive breath of frustration with the question.

“Somebody’s worried about you,” Max said with a harsh growl. “The demon doesn’t pull out his Vandugga for just any threat. Someone thinks you’re a danger to the established order—otherwise, we wouldn’t have been chased twice in one night into the heart of another barony.”

I didn’t want to ask my next question, but I did anyway. “What is in charge of this barony?”

“The Old Confederate Union,” Mike said. “They actually have one of the better baronies to live in . . . aside from the Order of Enlightened Zombies, that is.”

“Here,” Angelica said, tossing a flyer over her shoulder as she pulled into a service station. “I got this for you at a rest area while you were still out cold. How about reading it after you show me what kind of gentleman you are. Fill us up, okay?”

I sighed. My head hurt. I didn’t want to do anything but slip into a coma and dream about living in a world that made more sense, like Sesame Street or Mr. Roger’s neighborhood. With my luck, though, Big Bird would probably turn out to be a velociraptor.

The night air was cold enough to irritate my throat, which was already irritated from all the stress. Mike got out to use the pay phone beside the front of the store as I looked at the fuel selections on the pumps beside the SUV. In my world, I only had three grades to worry about: regular, mid-grade, and premium, unless I was driving something with a diesel engine. Things here weren’t so simple. Among other things, the pump carried dragon’s breath, elven urine, and virgin’s blood.

“Ummm . . . what does this thing take?”

“Knowing the Homeowner’s Association and the Nightwatch, the thing probably runs on children’s tears,” Angelica said through the driver’s side window. If the place doesn’t carry that, I’d go for the synthetic stuff. Dragon’s breath makes everything stink, and elven urine will only clog up the injectors and make the engine skip. That stuff’s been bad ever since the elves started coming down with STDs. I can’t believe the stations still carries that crap.”

“Virgin’s blood,” I muttered under my breath. I didn’t want to think about how they collected the blood. A sticker beneath the logo proclaimed “It eally makes your engine screeeeam!”

While I waited for the tank to fill, Mike came back from the service station’s interior with a packet of something that looked like roasted insects and a can of Sprite. He gave them to me and I held the items on my hand, unsure whether or not I should throw them away. “The things in the bag taste like peanuts,” Mike said.

“It’s not that,” I told him and held up my drink. “I just want to know if this really has a sprite in it.”

Mike chuckled, but his voice was hard and serious. I could tell that something was wrong. “That’s the kind of thinking that will help keep you alive here, Jack. And no,” he said as we both got back into the SUV, “Here, a can of sprite is just a sprite.” Then he cleared his throat to get Angelica and Max to pause in their conversation and listen. “I just got off the phone with our friend across the street from the cemetery, Max. The mausoleum’s been raided,” he said bitterly.

Max let out an angry growl. “How did they find it?”

“Demon’s been looking for us for some time,” he said in resignation. “Wasn’t a matter of if, but when he tried to shut us down.”

We drove for some time, keeping to roads that took us in a southerly direction. After an uncomfortable silence, Max spoke up. “What now?” he asked, fidgeting in his seat as if the anxiety was pushing him to start scratching himself with his feet.

“We’re near Columbia, now,” Mike said. I think we’ll head down into Georgia and go to St. Simon’s Island. I have a contact there that can help us.”

“You’re talking about Cardigan Calli, aren’t you?” Max asked.

“She’s always helped relocate anyone I’ve sent to her in the past,” Mike mused. “I just never thought she’d have to help hide me.”

“Hey jabber-heads, did one of you mention St. Simon’s Island?” Angelica’s tail twitched angrily in the air. “We’ve got a convent there.” Something in that thought seemed to trouble her, but she went on without pause, thinking aloud to herself as she looked at me nervously from the rearview mirror. “I’m going to have to ditch the three of you before I’m shot just for being too close to you.”

“Why not just leave us on the side of the road,” I said. After all, it wasn’t like we had just saved her life.

“I’m a reformed succubus!” she shrieked. “Reformed! Don’t you get that? You can just be glad I didn’t stick a pitchfork up your—“

“—We are grateful for your help,” Mike interjected. “But I’m not sure you’ll be out of the woods yet, either.”

“And you never said exactly why those Nightwatch goons crossed into another principality to capture you,” Max said.

“None of your business,” she said hotly. Her tail grew as stiff as a spear, and the tip of the thing quivered ominously. “I already warned the two of you that I don’t want to talk about it,” she hissed. Was it just me or had the scent of sulfur in the air grown stronger? I must have missed the first conversation while I was out cold.

Mike let the issue go for the moment, and instead turned his attention back to me. “Do you still have that screamer with you?” he asked suddenly.

“Um . . . I’m almost afraid to ask what that means.”

“He’s talking about your gun. The pistol you dug out from under the seat,” Max said in a grouchy voice.

“Yeah,” I said a bit uneasily. I wasn’t about to give something that valuable up. Not in a place like this.

Mike nodded his head and simply said, “Good.”

“Why?”

Mike motioned with his hand toward a luminous sign in the distance. “Because we’re almost at Walmart,” he said.

Chapter Eight

Clean Up On Aisle One

 

My brochure told me that the Old Confederate Union was one of the easiest places to live for all beings, mortal and mortally-challenged alike in the Playground. Its history had unfolded much like my own world’s had in many ways until the time of Martin Luther King Jr. . . . only on this plane of existence it wasn’t Martin Luther King who led the civil rights marches across this version of the South.

No. Here it was Samuel L. Jackson.

Everything turned around for the South the day of the assassination. Samuel L never took the bullet, but that wasn’t for a lack of trying on James Earl Ray’s part. Every time the creep attempted to shoot the man, Samuel L just looked at the bullets and dared them to come closer. Forensic experts never were able to find the projectiles. A rumor is still floating around that they had themselves melted down and converted into lead fishing line sinkers out of fear. Even the Playground periodic table knows better than mess with Sam. Before Ray had a chance to run out of ammunition, Samuel L. leapt off of his Memphis hotel balcony, walked up to the assassin, snatched the rifle out of his hands, and beat him over the head with it.

Meanwhile, this principality had always been run by the Ghosts of Heritage Past, but they weren’t ready for racial amity. The Union and Confederate dead were too interested in fighting their battles over and over again in massive, ethereal armies. The soldiers weren’t content to keep themselves confined to the battlefields at Appomattox, Gettysburg, and Fort Sumter. They roved all across the countryside until they finally decided to take their quarrels back to the place where it all started right here in the dirty south. At the conclusion of each battle, the unquiet dead demanded that the residents of the South pick the rightful winner. You can imagine what that did to set back race relations. No matter which side got picked, the losing ghosts poltergeisted the voters until they fled their homes and towns in desperation.

Samuel L. knew that the ghosts relied on the living energy of mortal humans watching their reenactments, so he had a talk with them. No one knows exactly what Sam told the spirits, but tourists visiting the tombs of the unknown Civil War dead can still hear them weeping uncontrollably. Reenactments of the old battles here are still huge tourist attractions, and for an extra fee, ticket purchasers can watch spectral performances of Gone With the Wind by the original actors. When the ghosts discovered that human adoration did wonders for their ectoplasmic bodies, they redoubled their efforts to bring more mortals into their barony. They lowered taxes, kicked out the KKK and banned Al Sharpton from the area. They also warned everyone that if they didn’t get along, Samuel L would come back, and he wasn’t going to be happy.

I realized when I looked at Walmart that all of this didn’t mean that the South was an oasis of love, harmony, and good manners. It was still the South, after all. Considering the fact that it’s populated not just by multiple human races but by a sizable minority of extraterrestrials (mainly the Greys), mythological creatures, a host of other beings both supernatural and paranormal, and escaped laboratory experiments, AND that none of these has broken out into another Civil War, I’d say the area had something going for it.

The hour here was late, but in a principality where night lasts forever, I guess the hour was always getting late. The parking lot was mostly empty. Angelica parked us near a Volkswagen beetle, but it must have known what she was like, because it skittered away on six legs to a safer location. Closer by stood a placid Clydesdale hitched to a carriage, drunkenly singing a lewd version of The Camp Town Races. When our eyes met, the thing stopped and said in a slurred voice, “Hey buddy, I’ll give you a free ride for a case of Bud.”

“No thanks, pall,” I told the bleary eyed horse. “I don’t drink and trot.”

The horse flicked its head in annoyance and started belting out the theme song to Mr. Ed. I guessed some animals never seemed to learn. A few shoppers moved about, either going into the store or coming out. I saw a shirtless man with a tattoo of a woman tied to a tree, screaming. Thankfully the automatic doors closed, cutting the distressed lady off. I’ve never liked tattoos, and sometimes you’ve got to wonder about people’s judgment in body art.

A wrinkled elderly man in a neatly cut suit walked out of the entrance holding an armload of makeup products and baby powder. He was arguing with a disembodied female voice about who let the cat into the kitchen. Apparently it knocked some of their invisibility powder into the macaroni salad. I might have been wrong, but the guy seemed unhappier that he couldn’t find the macaroni than the fact that he wasn’t able to see his wife. I couldn’t imagine why either one of them had left something like invisibility powder open in the kitchen. That’s why children and old people frequently needed sitters.

When I passed through the doors, the first thing to greet me was the greeter, and he didn’t. In fact, the man didn’t do anything except recline in a lawn chair beside a stack of holovision units, which seemed to be the Playground’s version of television. At the moment, the display unit looked like it was experiencing some kind of malfunction because the only hologram consisted of an amoeba of static hovering in midair. The static bore an uncanny resemblance to the sound my brain was beginning to make as it was coming apart at its sleep-deprived seams.

Maybe it was because I had been killed and brought back to life in a place called the Demon’s Playground, maybe it was because I was being chased by psychotic movie monster horrors, or maybe it was because I was stuck in an uparmored, James Bonded SUV with a succubus, a wereschnauser, and a fangless vampire . . .but this aggravated me.

The door greeter was sound asleep and sawing some heavy logs by the racket his snoring was making. I flagged down a floor worker, a lady with a large set of gills. She was just walking away from the fish tanks in the pet supply section and leaving a trail of wet footprints behind her. When I told her about the greeter and that somebody needed to wake the guy up, her eyes widened and she looked at me like I was crazy.

“He’s protected by the Disabilities Act,” she proudly sniffed while somehow managing to insinuate that I was an intolerant buffoon.

“Is he too disabled to do his job?” I fired back. I knew I was grumpy, but a line of common sense in this mad world had to be drawn somewhere, and I was damn well going to draw it. “Come on,” I complained. “Sleeping on the job? I may have been born at night, but I wasn’t born last night, lady!”

The floor worker gave me a scandalized look. She held her head back and squared her shoulders indignantly. Then she waggled her finger admonishingly. “I’ll have you know he has SOBN!”

I didn’t know what that was, so I stood my ground and looked at her with an expression that said, “!!!”

“It means he has Spontaneous Out-Of-Body Narcolepsy,” the lady said in a lecturing tone. Like the acronym was supposed to make a difference.

“Oh yeah? Well I know a couple of SOBs, and they don’t impress me too much.” I folded my arms and wanted to see how she responded to that.

How she responded to that was to tersely inform me that SOBNs suffered from uncontrolled periodic episodes of sleep where their conscious minds popped out of their bodies. “He’s also our security,” the gilled lady smartly informed me. “People like you make it harder for the disabled to find acceptance in society.”

Son-of-a-bitch.

I wanted to remain undaunted, so I folded my arms again and looked at her with an expression on my face that said I was constipated or perhaps suffering from dysentery. I prepared to move on when the out-of-body narcoleptic abruptly woke up. At first I thought he had heard my comments, because the man bolted up so fast from his lawn chair that he slung the thing into the center of the entrance aisle. By the time I spun around, the fellow’s head was surrounded by a bubble of holovision static, and the his voice was almost childlike as he screamed out, “THEY’RE HEEERE!!”

Suddenly, half a dozen of the principality’s law enforcement poltergeists materialized through the store’s front doors, bellowing at shoppers to take cover, screaming out orders that everyone was in danger and that they had to move to the rear of the store as quickly as possible.

Before I had the chance to say, “What the fu—,” the entrance’s glass face exploded inward, sending glittering shards fanning out in a lethal spray. Shoppers screamed and fell as shrapnel peppered them. My hand swiftly moved to the breast pocket of my burial coat for the pistol, but a powerful force rapidly pushed me against the wall and I heard the whispery voice of a ghostly officer telling me to remain calm and stay out of the way. Screams of alarm filled the storefront as three hideous creatures swooped through the gaping hole and landed on the floor not far from where the narcoleptic stood in terror.

The monsters stood at least five-and-a-half feet tall on talons long enough to eviscerate a horse. Their deadly appendages clacked and tapped against the floor with a carnal impatience. The things radiated an eagerness to rend into living flesh and feel warm and sticky blood pouring across their claws. Their legs possessed multiple joints, perfect for wrapping around helpless prey with bone crushing violence. A filthy coat of thick feathers covered them, though it lay bare above the waistline, exposing flat, deflated, and pendulous breasts. Short, stubby arms protruded beneath a pair of massive wings, and if they had not been folded behind their backs, the things would have spanned twenty feet from tip to tip. They were clearly powerful enough to propel the beasts into the sky, carrying helpless victims to whatever perch served as their buffet table.

“What are those?” I gasped.

The poltergeist protecting me said in an angry and gravely voice, “Harpies. Bad business for mortals.” Underscoring the poltergeist’s words, the harpies let out a wail of black malice that no rollback discount was going to satisfy.

Urged by a rising sense of panic, I struggled against the poltergeist’s icy presence to fish the screamer out of my pocket but found myself thrust aside onto the floor as the ghostly figure joined several other shapes floating in formation toward the intruders. Across the aisle by the checkout lanes I caught a momentary glimpse of Angelica hunkering behind a register and staring in shocked disbelief. I scrambled up as the brave poltergeists drew closer to the harpies, and I attempted to make eye contact with the half-succubus, but the look on her face ran deep with fear. When the demon lady shrunk back behind the register, I knew she was going to be no help to me if the harpies got past security, so I kept to the periphery of the action where I thought I had my best chances of getting off a good number of shots without hurting anyone else.

The poltergeists met the harpies with a sudden banshee’s wail, which immediately sent out an expanding ring of frost that caused the harpies’ feathers to white over and harden until they clacked against one another like shards of steel. The monsters stiffened and become immobile as the ghosts whirled around them, growing layer upon layer of ice around things’ bodies with each pass they took. The harpies’ faces were grotesquely human and mockingly feminine. They were clenched in grimaces of rage. Before I had a chance to feel reassured that the poltergeists had everything under control, one of the harpies managed to produce a concealed device from beneath its feathers, and it depressed a red button at the thing’s tip.

The poltergeists let out earsplitting shrieks of pain, and they rocketed away, leaving behind frosty contrails hovering in the air along with echoing wails of pain that took several seconds to ebb away and recede into the distance. For a moment everything was quiet except for the voice of the drunken Clydesdale outside, who was now singing the theme song to Grizzly Adams.

The harpies let out agonized screeches as they forced their bodies to move. The enraged monsters cast about for any moving victim, and when their sights settled on the quivering narcoleptic, one of the harpies seized ahold of him with unbelievable speed. I gagged as she sank her talons into the poor fellow’s body. The man wriggled helplessly in the monster’s grasp like a pathetic child’s plaything. The harpy let out a cry of triumph as she threw him aside.

The other two harpies fell on the man’s lifeless form with savage gusto, and I heard cries of disgust from hiding onlookers. They couldn’t help themselves despite the danger nearby, and I understood. What the beasts did to the man’s body still gives me nightmares.

At the door front, I saw Mike running into the building, but I lifted my hand up to hold him off. I raised my weapon to let him see that I was armed, but he vigorously shook his head NO.

The harpy that gored the door greeter began moving around the front of the store in bobbing strides that made me think of a chicken or an ostrich hatched in hell. Its head rapidly shifted from right to left as it sniffed at the air. The thing seemed intent on finding someone. As I listened to the wet noises the other two harpies made as they gorged themselves on the dead man, I couldn’t let that thing find its next prey. I needed to find a clear line of sight.

Taking two running steps into the aisle, I took up a squared stance, aimed my pistol and squeezed the trigger. The recoil was terrific, rocking my body as if I had been hit by a small car. A wispy energy projectile screeched toward the harpy, striking her in the back and lifting her into the air, sending her flailing into the wall in front of the checkout area with a loud crunch. Her sister killers let out furious screams of rage; their torsos were covered in the thick ichor of congealing blood and torn entrails. Their eyes locked onto mine through pupils slanted with hatred. I pushed away the urge to run and fired off two shots in quick succession. Both shots struck true, but the energy bolts bounced off of both monsters. The things merely winced.

My mouth went dry and my stomach clenched so tightly something might have ruptured down below. Mike skidded to a stop beside me long enough to haul me into a long aisle of kitchen appliances. I struggled to keep up with his long strides as the harpies let loose with a chorus of angry wails. We hung a left where the aisle intersected with another, and Mike pushed me into a narrow cove between two display stands featuring large Ooteenee Cast Iron Jawa Cauldrons (“for the best wampa rat stew EVER!”)

“I told you not to use that thing,” he hissed between gritted teeth.

“I got one of them!” I retorted, keeping my head low and my voice lower.

Someone up front let out an agonized scream. A man pleading for his life broke into a series of wet gurgles before his voice cut off entirely. I felt my face grow hot as my jaws clenched together so tightly they groaned.

“You killed the first one, but it passed on an immunity to the other two,” Mike told me angrily. “Which is why harpies never attack alone. Now you’ve only made the others really, really mad.”

“They’re looking for someone,” I whispered quickly. “I’ve got an idea how to handle them until more help arrives,” I told Mike, slowly sticking my head above the lip of the display. I couldn’t see the things, but I heard their taloned feet tapping the floor as they bobbed through the aisles sniffing out their quarry. I rose and squeezed through a gap before Mike had a chance to stop me, and kept a stooped posture as I moved toward the sound of the prowling birdstrosities. By the racket they were making knocking boxes off of shelves, the beasts were now at the end of the sporting aisle. I passed several people hiding in the middle of clothing carousels and motioned for them to close the gaps between the garments so the harpies wouldn’t see them peeking out. They already knew what was happening—death most fowl was happening, and if they weren’t careful, it was going to be coming for them like I was a plate of fried chicken at a short order diner.

When I got close, I flattened myself against the edge of the aisle and peered around the corner. Both harpies waved their faces through the air, whiffling loudly for their target’s scent. I looked at my screamer and knew I needed to find another weapon. Peering down the aisle, I saw a set of Rip Van Winkle Nine Pins Bowling Kits (Loser sleeps for nine days, GURANTEED!), but there was no way I could get to the things in time to use them. The banner on a cricket box next to me promised to keep players hopping for days, but I didn’t know if the change in gait would help or hinder the creatures, so I decided against it.

The only option I really had was distraction, so I opted on the Scooby Doo plan. I boldly stepped into the center of the aisle and loudly called the things a number of names. A moment of startled silence followed as I quickly raised my left hand, waved to them, said, “Ree you rater Raggy.” I aimed my pistol and shot the shelves above them, and ran like mad.

My feet pounded the floor as the harpies bellowed. Sporting equipment rained down on the creature’s heads. The moment of surprise only lasted seconds. I used it to jig and jag through the rows of shopping lanes in an attempt to lose the things somewhere in the heart of the store. The rapid tack-tack-tacking of birds’ feet closed in on me in fast pursuit. Running headlong down the aisles, I fired off my weapon at the shelves around me, blasting everything from pickled yacks’ udders to candied Dodo’s eggs across the floor. Nothing worked. My heart lurched as both beasts rounded the last corner, emitting jubilant cries as their gazes locked onto me.

I fired two shots at them, but the energy bolts only ruffled the harpies’ feathers. I launched into the pharmaceutical section of the store, hoping that I might be able to hide inside the caged room where the heavy grade meds were stored, but the room was already packed.

“Crap!” I shouted. “I hate birds!”

Both of the harpies moved like Jurassic velocichickens onto the pharmacy floor. I looked around in desperation for anything that might work in my favor, but aside from a jar of leeches for cosmetic bloodletting needs, I didn’t see anything that might help. The closest fiend leapt across several shelves, toppling one onto my hip, knocking me to the floor. I let out a loud scream as the harpy stood on top of the shelf, placing the main of her weight over my body and driving the edges of the shelf’s supports into my hips and ribs.

Scrabbling madly, I kicked to free myself. The harpy’s talons were caked with gore, and flecks of tissue and offal clung to them in sticky clots. Images of the things cleaving into my guts and ripping my organs out flooded my mind. The harpy looked down at me and bared her fangs in eagerness to tear me apart. As the monster bent and started clawing at the shelf covering my body, I caught a brief flicker of motion out of the corner of my eye as a blurred object collided with the monster, catching her midriff and sending her spiraling across the top of a display case.

“Get away from him!” Mike snarled. His lips were pulled back from his fangs in a frozen rictus of fury. I prayed the dentures didn’t fall out. When the beast rushed at Mike, the vampire was ready. He dropped low as sharp talons whooshed through the space above his head. Quickly, Mike wrapped his arms around the birdstosity’s thighs, hefting it high into the air and sending it toppling end over end to land in a heap twenty feet away.

“Get back!” Mike snarled at me before the second harpy could close with either of us.

My body hurt too much to make it very far, and I scrabbled a short distance to the left of the pharmacy counter, as Mike, eyes ablaze with the cold, undead sparks of the grave, collided with the second monster. The shrieks and howls of their brawl raised a bloodcurdling cacophony throughout the store. I heard the alarmed cries of shoppers flooding toward the storefront as they moved in a mass exodus away from the violence.

To my right, I saw the wide, frightened eyes of Angelica peeking around at us. I motioned for her to come out and help Mike. When I saw her gaze flicker beyond me toward the harpy Mike had thrown across the floor, I knew that the beast was onto the scent of its hidden prey . . . and Angelica crouched behind a shattered kiosk directly in its path. Without thinking, I aimed my pistol and squeezed off several shrieking rounds and pulled my body back behind the counter wall. With any luck, the diversion would buy the demon-lady a chance to dodge away.

When I head a muffled whimper come from the damaged kiosk, I knew the harpy remained undeterred. I leaned out to scream in frustration at the half-succubus to motivate the hell out of there. Where was all of her sharp-tongued bluster now? When I saw Angelica sink down into a fetal position and wrap her arms around her knees protectively, the words froze in my mouth. She was too frightened to move. That meant I had to get the harpy’s attention off of her. The only thing I had was an ineffective pistol. I aimed my gun, carefully zeroing in on the thing’s head. Maybe the shot wouldn’t hurt the harpy, but I hoped it might do something unpleasant to draw its attention.

The recoil jarred me, but my aim was spot on. The monster’s head whipped to the side violently, and the harpy spun, bristling with venom. The thing ruffled its feathers in agitation. I only had time to let out a quick, “Oh hell!”

The harpy unfurled its enormous wings and let out an aggressive shriek. One bound in the air brought the monster down directly in front of me. I lifted my hands instinctively, but my head erupted in a sizzling burst of pain as the harpy’s claws raked across my forehead with so much force that I saw fireworks explode within my field of vision. When I hit the floor, I slid across the tiles in a heavy heap of unwieldy limbs. Nearby, Mike’s fight was not going well. His adversary managed to grab ahold of him, and then it gave a great, bounding leap with the vampire held fast in its grip. When the harpy let go of his body, Mike fell twenty feet in a hard plunge to the floor below.

Through my swollen eyes I caught a glimpse of Angelica cowering behind a broken makeup kiosk specializing in Triassic and Cretaceous skin types, which explained the hamster-filled Plexiglas snack box attached to it marked hors d’oeuvres. Mike lay on the floor, attempting to collect himself in fits and starts. His impact with the tiles had knocked him dumb for the time being. I couldn’t be sure because of the blood dribbling into my eyes, but Mike’s left side looked like it had been realigned, and he seemed to be having some difficulty pulling all the twisted angles out of his limbs.

I knew if I didn’t act quickly, I was going to have the same problem. “Damnit Succubus, help me,” I pleaded as the pitiless harpy bore down on me. I kicked at the thing’s taloned hands as it reached for me, but the beast just trilled a short burst of cold laughter and stepped on my legs with one of its massive claws. My gun went flying. I screamed as sharp, disease-carrying daggers ripped into my calves, sending warm runnels of blood welling up around the embedded claws. My leg flared with pain.

I screamed again as I felt a tingling numbness creeping up the length of my wounded leg toward my body, deadening it to voluntary motion. Angelica stared at me through wide and terrified eyes. The moment our gazes locked, I gasped in surprise. A wave of her emotions suddenly rushed through me. I realized I could feel the punishments of hell that she always felt, insinuating their way into her soul like parasitic worms. In my own moment of mortal torment, I knew what it meant to be a reformed minion of darkness. Angelica felt other people’s pains as if they were her own, only magnified. When I bellowed in agony as the harpy gave her claws a savage jerk, Angelica screamed, too. There was no way she could help me. What a pitiful sight, watching the pretty little demon lady. She was immobilized by her own nature. I had no idea.

I was tired. Terrified. And accepted my fate. Yet even in all of my agony, I reached out my hand toward her. I wanted to touch her and tell her everything was going to be okay. Once the harpy was done with me . . . no more pain, and that meant she wouldn’t hurt anymore either.

“Please run,” I mouthed the words as I felt tears of blood dripping down my face. The harpy crowed in triumph. I saw Mike on his feet once again. He made another charge at the harpy holding me down, but its partner gave a fluttering hop and seized him in its grip. Angelica looked lost and lonely, like an abandoned girl left alone on a cold and desolate night. “Run!” I shouted at her. “There’s still time for you!”

A look of resolution spread across Angelica’s face. She stood up and hefted the kiosk over her head, throwing it with so much force that the beast above me was knocked aside. “Stop it!” she screamed, then called out in a language of dark words that made my ears hurt.

Both harpies froze for a moment, and their eyes narrowed on Angelica with looks pitiless and sere. Then the beast with my blood soaking its talons hopped over me. Its rustling feathers sounded like an army of snakes passing through dried leaves. Angelica continued speaking to the creatures in that foul, cruel tongue of hers—the language of demons. It sounded so vile that I nearly begged for the harpy to turn back around and finish its job on me, but it paid me no attention and continued its relentless approach toward her. The thing’s partner joined in step behind it. Angelica screamed for the things to stop one more time, and when they didn’t, I saw she held my screamer in her right hand.

“Cover yourself, Jack,” she warned me.

Angelica fired the weapon . . . not at the harpies, but into the ceiling above me. Shots in rapid succession blasted through large sections of the roof causing a cataract of debris to roar down on top of the beasts. Dust and sharp bits of ceiling fell around me and billowed into my face.

I was still scrabbling back when the air began to clear. My back collided with something stiff and unyielding. When I looked up, I saw Angelica looking bleakly across the ruined swath of damaged masonry, steel support beams, wiring, and chalky tiles. I frantically grabbed ahold of her pant leg to get her to look down at me. Those abominations might still be alive underneath all of that ruin. I couldn’t get out in time if the things rose up and came at us again. I knew she could.

“Run,” I begged her in a panicked voice. “Get out of here while there’s still time! Take Mike with you and go!”

Angelica’s eyes focused on mine, and her face rippled with so many conflicting emotions that it moved like the surface of a turbulent pond. “Nobody’s ever done anything like this for me before,” she said in disbelief.

“Go,” I implored her, but she shook her head.

“They’re dead,” she said hollowly. Then she looked down at me, and in a quiet voice, asked me, “Why, Jack? You don’t owe me anything.”

From somewhere amid the carnage and wreckage, a section of collapsed roof heaved and split in two as Mike freed himself. “We’ve got to get out of here,” he growled.

I moaned in pain as Angelica lifted me up over her boney shoulders. It was all I could do not to scream out again when she finally had me secured above her back. Where’s Max?” I mumbled between swollen lips. I hadn’t seen the wereschnauser stalking the pet food aisle, and that worried me.

“One of the harpies kicked him before they came inside,” Mike said through strained jaws. “His ribs are broken, but he’s a lycanthrope. He’ll heal.”

As we made our way through the chaos inside the store, an arriving medical worker offered to take me from Angelica’s back to an ambulance, but she told the man that if he touched me she was going to rip his face off and then start doing rude things to his body. “Hang on Jack . . . we’ll get you taken care of,” she told me. Before I lost consciousness for the second time in one day, I realized through my addled and foggy mind that she had called me Jack.

Not flyboy or some other disparaging name.

Jack.

And my name never sounded more beautiful.

Chapter Nine

Why it Sucks To Be A Succubus

 

When everything swam into focus, I felt good. I mean really good. Until the moment I sat up—and then I felt bad. I mean really bad. My leg felt like maybe it ought to be somebody else’s. When I rumbled out a string of unintelligible syllables, “Ife gottagoto th’bathr’m,” what I meant was “My bladder’s about to explode, and if somebody doesn’t help me to a toilet soon, dire consequences beyond my control will promptly ensue.”

Luckily a pretty blonde wrapped in a comfortable wool cardigan was sitting by my bedside wearing a smile that could have been the distillation of kindness itself. Her shoulder length hair was held back by a bright blue scarf, and her green eyes, soulful and wise, twinkled with an inner decency that made me feel as if I had found a place in this crazy plane of existence where things might make some kind of sense. Startled by the sudden sense of attraction, I closed my eyes tightly and told myself that I was under the influence of some sort of strong pain reliever. I smiled at my unexpected companion and wondered how Angelica was doing.

“Bathroom,” I said again as my bladder gave a final-warning spasm and my smile turned into a grimace.

“Oh my!” she said. “I’m not surprised! You’ve been out of it for several days.”

With a good bit of help, I got unsteadily to my feet and allowed the blonde to guide me into a clean bathroom that smelled of cinnamon-apple potpourri. I cannot tell you how good it felt to relieve myself. A healthy set of body plumbing goes chronically underappreciated until all hell breaks loose with it, and then it becomes priority number one, right up there with dousing flames when you’re on fire and running away from militant vegans sermonizing about the benefits of a meat free diet.

While I had some privacy, I gave my body a good lookover. My face was bruised so badly on one side that it looked like someone had mistakenly printed an inkblot test on it. A long scar ran from my right temple down to my jaw, and little black knot work told me someone had expertly sewn up the wound. My leg looked worse—more like a swollen sausage than a proper appendage. The sight of it made me nauseous and dizzy. Thick sutures kept the skin tightly bound together, and a number of oblong, black adhesive bandages dotted the entire length of the limb.

When I cleaned up a bit, my companion was waiting on the other side of the door, which was a good thing because my knees buckled just before I reached the bed, and she had to catch me before I went all the way down. “You’ve got to watch yourself,” she said in a gentle voice as she helped me back onto the mattress.

“What are you giving me for pain?” I asked. “My leg feels like it’s on fire, but the thing looks so bad I can’t believe I’m not rolling around in agony.”

The girl made a sympathetic tsking sound. “Harpies are disgusting things. I never understood why the council allowed the convent to bring them onto the island.”

“You mean there are more here?” I blurted out.

“They belong to the reformed sisterhood,” she said with a nod. “And I’m sure they would never let anything like that out to terrorize the principality. The poltergeists would never rest quietly for it.”

I remembered Angelica saying that there was a convent on St. Simon’s Island, and that’s when it dawned on me who my kind caretaker was. “You’re Cardigan Calli, aren’t you?”

A small blush painted Calli’s cheeks as she nodded her head. “I really wish people would stop calling me that. It makes the cardigans unhappy.”

Despite the pain in my leg, I nodded my head and pretended as if I knew exactly what she meant by that. “Is there any more medicine for pain? I think the stuff you gave me is wearing off.”

“I haven’t given you anything for pain yet,” she said as she pulled my blanket aside to have a look at my leg. “It’s the leeches that kill most of the pain,” she added. “And it’s about time I changed them for a fresh batch.”

“Leeches!” I exclaimed. “Holy hell you’re not putting something like that on me!”

Calli gave me the politely firm scowl of a nun armed with a solid oak ruler who wasn’t afraid to use it. “You will if you want to keep your leg,” she advised.

I thought of the adhesive strips dotting my leg and put two and two together. “Those better be medical grade or I’m going to be very upset with you. I have a werewolf with me, you know,” I warned her.

“I already know he’s a wereschnauser,” Calli said dryly.

Son of a bitch.

“Fine. I can still have him hide your newspaper,” I grumbled.

“He wouldn’t!”

“And pee on it.”

“Now that’s just cruel.”

When our eyes met, we both started giggling. “These are the best leeches money can buy,” she told me proudly. “They’re not actually leeches at all. We just call them that because it sounds better than what they really are.”

My mouth dried up. “What are they, then?”

“Oh,” her voice was nonchalant. “They’re xenomorphs. They do wonderful things for the body, like reduce swelling, filter out infection, minimize pain . . . unless you leave them on too long.”

I knew there had to be a catch. There always seemed to be a catch here in the Playground. I swallowed deeply and asked, “Oh? And what’s that?”

“They start laying eggs.”

My head went light and my face felt flush. “Can’t you just give me something less deadly, like methamphetamine, or bath salts, maybe?”

Calli laughed at that. “Don’t be a baby, Jack. The last time anyone ever had a bad reaction to the xenomorphs was with medical case LV426, and when the authorities brought doctors Hicks, Newt, and Ripley back from early retirement, the whole mess was fixed. It was a mistake to get rid of Hicks and Newt in the first place,” she said, batting away an annoying thought.

I stared at her like I had no idea what she was talking about. Apparently Calli was a quick study on human nature, because when she figured out I had no idea what she was talking about, she said in a reassuring voice, “You’ll be fine. If you’ll just settle yourself down, I’ll go grab some more larvae from the queen and be back in a jiff with some Percocet.

Now she was talking my language. Calli wasn’t gone long before the pale skinned, dark haired form of Angelica stalked into the room. She unceremoniously pulled up a padded chair that had been sitting against the wall, ignoring the loud screech it made as its legs scraped across the tile floor, and sat down with an aggravated sigh.

“Well hello to you, too,” I said. “I was wondering how you were.”

Angelica scowled deeply. “I figured you’d be too busy talking to Mrs. Perfect to spare a thought for me.” Her lips puckered into a pouty expression, and the voice of my inner robot started screaming all kinds of warnings inside my skull.

“Ummm . . . Angelica, are you okay?” I knew that something had to be amiss because of her behavior during the harpy attack. Now, she was just being downright odd.

“No!” she snapped. “I’m not okay!”

I flinched at the heat and anger in Angelica’s voice. The room suddenly filled with the gunpowder scent of brimstone. “What’s wrong?” I asked, uncertain whether or not I should be worried or frightened by the explosive mood. “Look, if I can help you with anything, I will.”

Angelica’s hands flew up to cover her face. “Stop it,” she growled petulantly.

I sat still in my bed, saying nothing, wearing an expression that said I was confused and had somehow lost the instruction manual that came with her when she rolled off the assembly line.

Angelica looked at me between her fingers. Her eyes were bloodshot ovals surrounding silvery luminous irises. I hadn’t realized how utterly beautiful they were until then. “Stop it,” she said again, but some of the heat seemed to have been dampened with her outburst.

“Stop what?” I cautiously asked.

“Being so nice to me,” she said between clenched teeth. “And looking at me like you did . . .”

“Like I did, when?”

“When the h-harpy was about to k-kill you,” she said in a voice torn with anger and grief.

I couldn’t understand what her problem was, and before I had a chance to respond, she surprised me by letting out a long, mournful wail. “I have my powers back!”

She has her powers back? Now I was really confused.

And worried.

I mean honestly guys, I don’t care what sort of girl is in front of you—demon babe, confused succubus, female-schizophrenic-whatever—seeing a lady in the throes of unspeakable distress is like seeing a wounded newborn dear. Even the most stalwart hunter is going to be moved to help. In the Playground, I would have thought that any sane, rational being would have welcomed an arsenal of innate superpowers, so I reached out with a comforting hand to Angelica. She flinched and nearly crawled onto the backrest of her seat.

“Don’t!” she screeched.

Softly adjusting my voice, I said, “Please help me understand what’s happening to you.”

A movement at the door caused me to pause and look toward the opening, hoping that it was Calli. I needed something strong right at the moment. The odor of sulfur was beginning to make my head and leg throb. Instead of Calli’s perky figure, Mike slowly made his way into the room with Max, who was wearing clothes for a change. He had on a pair of jeans covered by dark leather chaps, and he wore a leather Zombie Davidson jacket overtop an Undead Leppard t-shirt. I had to admit the look suited his scruffy features well.

It wasn’t until Mike pulled two more seats closer to my bed that I realized I was dressed in a clean white cotton sweatshirt and warm pair of flannel pajama pants. I still drew my blankets over my body out of a good Southerner’s sense of modesty. Strange that I didn’t mind sitting there in my bedclothes with only Angelica nearby.

“I’m afraid I can help enlighten you,” Mike said sympathetically. “Dear Angelica has been expelled from her order, and everything that was done to help curb her demonic nature has been stripped away.”

“Oh.”

As usual, I had no idea what that meant. “Well, if there’s anything I can do—” I started to offer but was cut off by Angelica’s piteous mewling.

“Succubi feed off of their ability to tempt men and corrupt their better natures,” Max explained. “I’m a shape changer, so she cannot affect me,” he said with a stoic growl.

“Nor can she affect me,” said Mike. “I am undead, after all.”

I looked at Angelica and couldn’t help feeling bad for her. “So how does this affect your . . . um, condition?” I asked. I thought she was sexually confused or something like that.

Angelica’s response was raspy and tired. “When I came to the sisterhood for help, I agreed to undergo a procedure to change the way my mind worked. The human side of me was sick of the horrible things I did to all the poor men I came in contact with. I needed it to stop. I wanted to find a part of myself that I could live with.”

“I can understand that,” I said.

Angelica’s eyes narrowed. “No. You can’t,” she said. “I was a seductive nightmare, ripe with all the enticements necessary to cause men to cross lines of behavior that most can’t come back from, Jack. My last victim was a little twelve-year-old boy. He was curious about his body and eager to explore the changes he saw going on in the girls around him. He lived in the apartment below mine. He had already been abused by several men, but I didn’t know that at the time.“ Her body shuddered as the memory of it visibly sickened her.

“I felt his curiosity building and his desire and attraction growing. Adolescence is always the easiest feeding time for my kind. For some young men . . . especially the ones who are already disturbed, even proximity to a half-succubus is enough.” Angelica sobbed.

“I did everything I could to stay away from the child, and I thought I had kept him safe, but I woke one night to flashing lights outside. When I opened my door, I saw two poltergeists hauling the kid away. When he looked at me, our eyes only met for a second, but I will never forget the way he smiled at me. He actually thanked me as they took him away. He thanked me. The things he did . . . he did to his sister. I-I-I w-watched the police cars g-g-go. I was so full of power and life that I f-f-felt invincible, like I could take on the whole d-damned Playground,” Angelic sniffled.

When she paused to look up, as if looking away would take away the terrible memories, she only allowed her gaze to fall on one pair of eyes in the room. Mine. And what I saw in her face was a frantic search for forgiveness and absolution.

“I fed off of that poor boy and the things he did to his sister,” Angelica said in a broken voice. “And now I’m afraid of what I will do again,” she said in a hopeless voice.

“Well, it seems like you’re safe with us,” I offered.

“Two of us,” Max said with a grim warning.

“And the effect a half-succubus gives off grows stronger whenever someone like Angelica is attracted to another man,” Mike added.

“Or has chosen a new victim,” Max clarified in a hard but not unkind voice.

“Oh,” I said as her sudden change in behavior, especially her sudden jealously began to add up.

“So . . . I guess that means you’re not confused anymore,” I said hesitantly.

Angie was barely able to look in my direction. “They did good work on me at the convent. I already knew I didn’t want to have a relationship with anyone. They just helped shut off the attractions I felt. Only now I don’t know if I’m me again—”

Everyone in the room went quiet as Calli zoomed back into the room holding a tray loaded with fresh bandages and moist, flat, newly hatched xenomorphs. She deposited two Percocet into my palms, and sat the tray down. “I’ve had time to think about your predicament, Mike,” she said loudly enough to let all of us know that she was addressing the entire room. “I think we need to go to Jekyll Island as soon as possible. There’s somebody there who can help you.”

“I was just hoping for a place to lay low for a while . . . to let some of this blow over,” Mike said.

Angie sat at the foot of my bed glowering. Thankfully, I seemed to be the only one to notice.

Calli shook her head and her voice sank. “I’m afraid this isn’t going to be as simple as relocating the refugees you send my way, Mike. You’re all over the news. All three of you are.” She then picked up a remote control and turned the holovision on in front of my bed. Faces hovered in the center of the holofield on the Jackal News Network where a number of pundits were talking about a barbarous act of terrorism. No footage appeared behind the babbling faces, so Calli quickly changed the channel to LNN—Left News Network—complete with a banner above its own set of talking heads proclaiming, We Know Better Than You—where I did catch an aerial view of a smoking crater amid a ring of collapsed, burning buildings in Apex, somewhere south of Raleigh.

“Hey!” I exclaimed. “That looks like the place where we came up out of the tunnels!” I said to Mike.

“It was,” he said in a heavy voice.

“Turn it off,” Max said in a wolfish snarl.

“They blame us,” Angelica uttered the words like a prisoner condemned to death row.

Calli’s voice was matter-of-fact, “They’re saying you’re some kind of anti-establishment terrorists, supernaturals with an anti-human rights agenda.”

“That’s not true,” I told Calli. “You’ve got to believe me.”

Calli started to pull the soft, cottony leg of my pajamas up over the wounds when Angelica nearly knocked her out of the way. “Don’t touch him. I’ll do that,” she sniffed loudly.

Calli thought it best to move a step sideways when she saw Angelica’s horns poke up a quarter of an inch. I gave her an apologetic smile, and even though I was taken aback by the succubus’s rude behavior, a part of my heart fluttered against my will.

Clearing her throat awkwardly, our hostess said, “If I thought you were guilty of something like that, I promise you that you never would have made it past my cardigans.”

That was the second time she had mentioned her clothing like they had minds of their own. “Can you all give us a second while we take care of this?” I asked, indicating the bandages and alien xenomorphs attached to my leg. I really needed to talk to Angelica, though.

Before leaving, Max surprised me by giving me a good, hard slap on the back. “You saved a lot of lives,” he said gruffly.

I nodded my head. I doubted that was going to show up on the news.

Once Max was out of the room, I took Angelica’s hand in mine as she was tending to my leg. She let out a hissing gasp and tried jerking her hand back. I didn’t let go. She struggled silently to pull away, but I forced my fingers between hers. They were small in my hand and delicate, elegant like a piano player’s. And hot. Feverishly so, almost painful to the touch, but I held on, letting the heat sink into my hands and burn me a little bit. I knew the half-succubus possessed enough strength to rip my fingers right out of their sockets if she wanted to hurt me, but I closed my free hand over hers and sat there quietly until she gave up and looked at me.

“I’ll just hurt you, Jack. Please don’t touch me like that.”

I shook my head. “It’s my turn to ask you why,” I said firmly. “And I’m not letting go until you sit down beside me.”

Angelica’s face grew red. I could tell she wanted to say something rude, but when she looked at me, her expression softened and she sat beside me. Even from a foot away, her body felt as hot as a space heater, which I welcomed because the air in the room was actually chilly.

“Why didn’t you save yourself?” I asked. “When I begged you to run. You had a chance to get away . . . several . . . but you stayed and risked your own life to protect mine.”

“I don’t know,” she said nervously. “I don’t know what’s happening to me.”

There were so many things rolling around inside my head that I wanted to discuss, but without planning my words, I said, “Something passed between us. I know you felt it too. I saw it in your eyes. I felt it, and I know it’s real. I think I understood some of what you go through, the kind of pain you’re damned to suffer.”

Angelica’s mouth clamped shut, and she tried to change the conversation. Her voice became waspish. “Do you like her? You do, don’t you?”

I almost laid a bit Sinatra on her: I only got eyes for you, babe . . . But my inner robot screamed at me that a flippant remark at a moment like this with a demon-lady was liable to end with a pitchfork shoved somewhere only proctologists and round worms dared travel.

Clearing my throat, I decided to be honest. “She was the first person I saw when I came to, and she was kind to me. By the standards of the place I come from, she’s a lovely person. I’m grateful for her kindness.”

Angelica looked like she wanted to puff up until her face popped. “I was a bitch to you in the SUV.” Her voice was self-recriminating.

I felt myself smile despite my better judgment. When she saw my expression, Angelica said, “I know you hate me for that.”

I laughed at that. I couldn’t help it. I had somehow managed to form an instantaneous bond with a minion of darkness that wanted to be anything but, and her reactions to me were so unexpected, so purely selfish, so beautifully genuine, that her rough charm touched me.

She must have misread me, because she said, “Fine! Good for you! I’ll only cause you pain, anyway!”

“But you’ve done nothing of the sort,” I told her.

“You’re attracted to me aren’t you!” she demanded. “That’s all anyone feels toward me. Lust. Lust so strong that they want to violate me to satisfy their pleasure!”

“And?” I asked, knowing there was more to it than that.

“And I will let you do it! I’ll hold you down and make you do it, make you scream in the kind of pleasure only the gods are supposed to feel, and you know what? I’ll feed off of your life while it happens! It’s what I am, Jack. I’m poison. A toxin. And—“

“You seem to think a lot of yourself.”

Angelica didn’t know what to say to that, so she continued on as if I hadn’t said anything. “And you were a fool to try sacrificing your life for a someone like me!”

Momentarily taken aback by the hurt and fear in her words, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that she had my heart. I didn’t know what else I felt beyond that. Maybe it was complicated by all the craziness swirling around in her head. And mine. But I was supposed to be there with her. I knew that beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Does that sound crazy to you?

Well, if you ever come here, just step outside and take a look around. You’ll find crazier staring back at you on the front lawn.

“I feel none of those things, Angie,” I told her quietly. “Not a single one.” I ran my hands across the skin of her nearly scalding back, allowed them to trail across the soft ridges of her wings, which fluttered at my touch.

“You’ll burn yourself,” she said defensively, but I also caught within her words notes of regret.

I gently turned Angie’s face toward mine, for she was Angie to me now, not a demonically punned name like Angel-ica. “Her eyes leveled onto mine, and the silver orbs of her irises were flecked by myriad opalescent striations. Nothing evil could ever possess eyes that were like mini raptures. “All I know is that I am supposed to be here, now, with you.”

Angie lowered her head. “This isn’t supposed to be possible,” she murmured. Then she protested again, “I don’t even know how I feel about guys. I’ll hurt you Jack!”

“You think an awful lot of yourself,” I said again.

Gently, I drew Angie toward me. I kissed her. I didn’t care that her lips burned mine. I kissed her until I tasted her pointed tongue. Beyond the sulfurous bite in her mouth, I tasted something else, something soft and clean, and I sank into her thick lips so deeply I wanted to get lost there.

When we finally pulled ourselves apart, she whimpered softly. “I don’t know what to do.”

I held her tightly and said, “We’ll figure it out.”

Chapter 10

Strange Things Go Bump In The Night

 

Mike didn’t seem surprised when he caught us in the middle of one of the hottest kisses I’ve ever experienced in my life. No. Really, by the end of the afternoon I had to ask for some lip balm because my face felt like someone had left my mouth outside in the Sahara at high noon with a magnifying glass lying on top of it. Before he had a chance to lecture the two of us about demonic seduction (and before Angie sprouted more horns and threw him across the room), I explained to Mike that whatever spell of corruption her demonic disposition held over other males didn’t seem to be affecting me.

Not too much, anyway. I still had to push away the sense that things were moving out of control between us. “It still shouldn’t be possible,” Angie said. She wore a look of disbelief, but who could blame her? One day wasn’t going to convince anyone. I was having enough trouble sorting through all of these feelings myself.

Max wasn’t ready to buy any of it either. He indicated the loose bed sheets with a flick of his hand, and wanted to know if we had engaged in activities I will only describe as premarital, and leave at that.

“Succubi don’t corrupt and tell,” Angie snapped in a most prim and Victorian manner.

I was more blunt. “I think she’d burn my parts off,” I said. I wasn’t comfortable talking about the issue, but I knew where Mike was coming from. For better or worse, we were all connected to something as insanely dangerous as it was nebulous, and if we were going to live through our situation, everything needed to be laid out on the table so nothing could creep up on us in the dark and bite us.

And in the Playground, nearly everything bit.

That’s not what has us worried,” Mike reminded me.

Mike could just speak for himself on that matter. The girl’s insides were like a supercharged easy bake oven, and I didn’t want any part of me to be the thing that got easily baked.

“Look guys, I know this is sudden, but what’s happening here isn’t about lust or desire.”

Max had to stifle a sarcastic laugh. “We’ve all got eyes, Jack. Don’t even try telling us that you aren’t attracted to Angelica.”

Attracted? How was I going to explain to them how I felt? “I genuinely care about her,” I said. My face flushed, but I had to say it. “I don’t care about sex. Not with Angie. Something inside of me knows that I’m supposed to be with her. I don’t know how to explain it.”

And God help me, I really didn’t.

Angie’s face blushed, and she made a smart comment about how insufferably cheesy I was becoming, but along with that blush, her eyes opened wider and she stopped breathing. Her fingers squeezed mine quickly.

Max scratched his head. “Mind if I put a little slice of that speech on a hamburger.” Then he asked me, “Was that hundred percent cheddar, or mostly processed cheese?”

Max may have been an ass, but he looked at Mike and hesitatingly told him, “I’ve seen cases of demonic oppression and domination, Mike. That didn’t sound like either of them.”

Mike nodded his head. “Angelica, have you ever heard of one of your sisters—reformed or infernal—talk about anything like this?”

Angie shook her head in response to Mike. “No. We cannot touch real cases of Love, and I’m not talking about the sappy shit in the movies and dime store books . . . I mean Love with the capital L. No one has ever felt this way about someone like me. Not that I’ve ever heard.”

“And how does Jack make you feel,” the vampire’s voice was quiet and loaded with gravity. “You’ve done a complete one-eighty on him that’s left us baffled.”

“When my curse is active, I cannot stop myself from doing the things I do—a flirtatious remark of provocative insinuation is all it takes to implant an idea. Men are so easy to fire up. At the height of my powers, all I have to do is step into a room and feel the men around me fill with desire and dark temptations. If I want to, I can take any man I want, or compel him to betray his spouse, desire his sister, tempt a coworker—”

Angie stopped and nervously eyed me to gage my response. I squeezed her shoulder.

“Anyway, you get the point,” she said, ashamed. “I really can’t stop it Jack. I swear.”

I smiled at her. “That does not change what I feel about you,” I repeated.

After all, exactly what did I feel for her? I just didn’t know.

Angie leaned her superheated body near mine, I think because she felt safer near me. “Please raise a window,” I said to Calli. As she did, a cool, salty breeze blowing from a quarter of a mile away swirled around me.

“I feel safe around you,” Angie said, addressing me directly. “I knew something major had happened the night we met. When you were unconscious after that crazy thing you did charging one of my kidnappers, I couldn’t take my eyes off of you. Our skin touched as we lifted you into the SUV, and I felt as if I already knew you. You scared me. That’s why I was so rude to you.”

I brushed several loose strands of hair out of her face as she kept talking. “I’m not as good at talking about my feelings. I’ve always been that way. It was safer for me. I’ve been on my own for as far back as I can remember . . . been taken advantage of, used for free labor, free gratification.” Angie shivered with revulsion as memories flowed trough her mind.

I nodded my head. “I’m sorry.”

Angie shook her head quickly. There was more to her life that she wasn’t sharing. I knew that, even though she hid it well. Now wasn’t the time to press her on it. “What do you make of that?” I asked Mike.

I didn’t get to hear Mike’s response because the lights suddenly went out, plunging the room in darkness and anything else he said was drowned out by the crashing of multiple windows in the hall outside of the bedroom we occupied. Calli let out an alarmed shriek as dim nightlights came on, revealing little beyond our startled faces. She leapt up from her chair and began taking her cardigan off. Angie was on her feet, and yanked me by the arm with superhuman strength, hauling me toward the bathroom door.

“Cut it out!” I demanded. I had to get out into the hall so I could protect her.

Angie slung me into the bathroom and said in a voice as hard as rock, “Lock the door, Jack. You’re too hurt for this!”

Just then, three shadowy, vaguely human shapes burst through the door. “Night prowlers!” Mike snarled.

Max drew a pair of revolvers from beneath his jacket and began firing at the prowlers. The weapons, two Eastwood and Branson fifty calibers roared like small cannons, spitting gouts of fire from their muzzles like hiccupping dragons. The dark forms jerked and stumbled back as Mike rushed one, striking it with a viperous right hook that caused the thing’s head to explode like gelatin and splatter across the wall behind its body.

“Light!” Mike shouted. “It’s the only thing that will stop them!”

Indeed, the two figures Max had unloaded on shook themselves briskly, and I heard twelve bullets tumble out of the dark masses comprising their bodies. Max backed away from the advancing forms, quickly reloading his weapons.

“It was the flash from the gunfire that hurt them,” I shouted to Max.

“Yep,” the wereschnauser said between clenched teeth.

Meanwhile, Mike’s decapitated assailant staggered around in a macabre headless dance. The gooey fragments of its head adhering to the wall began wriggling like tadpoles and appeared to be converging on one central spot. I knew once enough of them clumped together, the uncoordinated body would be able to reassemble itself.

Calli let out an and angry command to attack, and the cardigan on her body leapt forward in a burst of speed, moving hypnotically through the air so quickly I had trouble making out what the thing was.

One of the prowlers lunged at Max before he had a chance to aim his revolver, forcing him to duck its attack. He was too slow to avoid the creature’s fingers, and let out of scream of intense pain as the prowler’s blow left some of it’s dark matter clinging to his bearded face like sticky putty. Reeling from the agony blazing across his cheek, the monster would have fallen on Max if it had not been for the billowing form of Calli’s cardigan, which no longer resembled a cardigan at all, but a bizarre alien creature from an H.R. Geiger painting. The once-upon-a-cardigan wrapped its stretchy body around the prowler, emitting a high series of furious screeches as it began savagely tearing at the prowler’s dark body.

“How hot can your body get?” I frantically asked Angie.

“I thought I told you to lock that door!” Angie snarled at me.

“How hot?!” I demanded.

“Pretty damned hot!”

I pulled out an unused roll of toilet paper. “Hot enough to light one of these?”

Angie let out a delighted yelp and snatched the thing from me. Cradling the roll in her hands, Angie focused her attention on the object with intense determination. Her silver eyes shone like bright, wintery stars, and the room suddenly lit up as a ball of fire flared to life in her hands. Screams so shrill and piercing that they soared beyond the human auditory range provoked agitated howls from dogs in the surrounding area. A chorus of canine calls outside of the window joined the prowlers’ tortured cries as they began to distend and lose coherence. I tossed Angie another roll, which she added to the first, feeding the hungry ball of flames in her hands. The prowlers attempted to scrabble away from the hateful source of light, but the succubus-girl stepped into their path with a gale of tinkling laughter.

The monsters in the room flailed and shook in spastic gyrations, and the surface of their bodies started boiling. I seized the moment and snuck around behind Angie to grab Max’s floundering legs and drag him away from the cornered and bubbling prowlers. The assailants lunged at us in the flickering firelight even as their dark masses slowly peeled and evaporated away. Mike added one of the pillows from my bed to the fire and tossed the blossoming wreath of newborn flames into the center of the floor.

The loudest wail yet erupted from the things, and they converged like mating amoebas into one large, shapeless form that poured itself through the open window with enough force to crack the frame and send fissures snaking across the wall. Moments later, Calli’s once-upon-a-cardigan flitted back into the room, where it settled around our hostess’s shoulders like the good and obedient article of clothing it ought to be. I had the fleeting thought that anyone wanting to get their hands down her pants was going to be in for a highly unpleasant surprise.

If I ever have a daughter, I swear to God I’m going to get me some of those things.

Max twisted in agony on the floor. Angie looked at me as if she wanted to apply some of the stuff that had gotten onto his face to my bottom, and I heard her mutter under her breath, “ . . . always has to be a hero.”

Calli knelt at Max’s side and pulled his hands away from the wound. I winced when I saw the damage the prowler had inflicted. The entire left side of Max’s face looked as if someone had poured acid over his head. “I’ve got to call for help,” she said.

I looked at Mike’s hands. Luckily, he wore gloves.

“What about the xenomorphs? Can they help?” I asked, avoiding Max’s melted face.

“This would just kill them,” Mike said in a grim voice. “Werewolves heal quickly, but prowlers are used against supernatural beings because they’re toxic to just about everything.”

I nodded my head and asked Calli where her flashlights were kept. Angie, who was busy tossing the burning bits of pillow and toilet paper into the bathtub, growled, “Oh no you don’t!” before I started down the dark hallway. “You’re not going anywhere alone.”

“I’ll show him where the lights are,” Calli said. “We’ve got to check the breakers, anyway.”

Angie slid smoothly between Calli and me. “I’d rather not have to neuter your cardigans and put you down,” she glowered, then her voice turned as prim as a proper Victorian lady’s. “I think we can find everything, thank you. We’ll only be gone a bit.”

I closed the door behind us as Calli led our little band into a more secure room. A long row of shattered windows allowed the winter night to pour its cold fingers into the house. Two moons painted the saltmarsh in a bone-white coastline dreamscape. When the unmistakable shape of a pterodactyl soared across the face of one of the principality’s moons, I shivered, thinking of the other predators out there in the dark. Somewhere just below the window I thought I heard grasshoppers rattling in the grass outside. The things had to be tough to survive on a night like this.

Angie huffed past me toward Calli’s kitchen, flicking her tail back and forth, warning me that nothing I was about to say was going to mollify her. “Would you wait on me?” I complained. “My leg’s throbbing.”

“I bet Calli can fix it for you,” she sniffed. “She would have been quite happy to pull your pajama legs up and—“

“—And nothing,” I said indignantly. “She doesn’t have the kind of tail you do,” I teased.

Angie stopped once we got to the kitchen, and spun around. Her voice took on a pert, dangerous clip as she came at me with a question out of left field. “Jack, I don’t have feet like other girls you’ve cared about. Did you enjoy rubbing their feet when they hurt?”

My own feet suddenly started to itch as my inner robot screamed at me that now was a perfectly prudent time to excuse myself to the bathroom. I knew if I did, though, Angie would just ask if Calli was hiding in the commode bowl. “Ummm, I never really thought much about it,” I said, deciding that lying was the best tactic to survive right now. I used to love massaging Liz’s feet.

Angie looked at me with her arms crossed and a skeptic’s scowl across her face. “What are you going to do for me when my hooves are hurting?” she demanded.

I raised my hands and shrugged my shoulders. “Get a hoof pick?”

Angie’s face grew red and her horns started to lift upward again. I felt heat wafting off of her in waves. Instinctively, I quickly took her hand in mine. Scalding pain made my hand spasm reflexively, and Angie jerked her fingers away in alarm.

“Jack!” she gasped. “Why would you do something like that?” Her eyes dropped to where I protectively held mine with the other hand.

“Because this isn’t about me and you,” I said. “That demonic influence was getting the best of you. I know you can feel how deeply I care for you. I don’t care about any other girl. Besides, you were about to iron my pajamas and set the kitchen on fire.”

Angie looked abashed. “Jack . . . I don’t know if this can ever be romantic between us.”

I tilted Angie’s head up toward mine and then stepped back and shrugged. “That doesn’t bother me,” I said. Honestly, it didn’t. “I’m just as confused as you are.”

Just when I thought she had calmed down, she snapped, “There are flashlights in that drawer.” The demon in her wasn’t done indulging its jealous side. “If any other girl touches you, I swear I’m going to chop her up and send her remains to the zombies.”

“Now that’s a good succubus,” I said, checking to see if the batteries worked.

From outside, I heard a loud commotion as the gate protecting the garden entrance to Calli’s property crashed open with a loud bang. I immediately grabbed Angie by her shoulders and forced her behind me. In the dimly lit kitchen, I opened a drawer by the sink and grabbed the first knife I spotted. Behind us, I heard glass crunching as something walked across the debris in the hallway. “We’re surrounded!” I said fearfully.

The frame housing the kitchen door groaned and started making splintering noises. Metal shrieked as something tore the screen from its hinges. Suddenly the door before us blew outward in a splintery rain. Angie growled like a cornered animal as flaring lights jabbed into our faces.

Intruders on both sides of us held rifles pointed directly at our heads, shining spotlights strong enough to floss our brains with high-energy streams of photons. I exercised the only option I had. I took a small flashlight from the countertop, said, “Two can play at this game,” and turned it on right in the face of the closest person to me.

I don’t even think the man blinked, but a deep, no nonsense voice did ask, “Are you Jack and Angelica?”

“That depends,” I said. “Are you a girl in disguise who secretly wants to hit on me? Because if you are . . . sweetheart, I don’t think you have enough guns to protect you.”

Angie stomped her hoof and pinched me. From the back end of the house, Calli called out in a tense voice, “It’s okay guys. Really, it is.”

“When this man takes his gun out of my face, I’ll take my flashlight out of his!”

Someone walked into the kitchen from the hallway and said, “It’s all clear, sir.”

The guns and their lights dropped from our faces as Calli emerged into the kitchen. “I have an injured man in the back who needs treatment soon.”

“Mister H is ready for him, ma’am.”

When Mike joined us, I asked, “How’d everyone get all military on us all of a sudden?” Even with only the light of two moons filtering in through the windows, I easily recognized advanced tactical gear adorning our new arrivals. Most of the men sweeping the house were dressed like someone ran out of SWAT uniform accessories and started using stormtrooper costumes to fill in the gaps.

“I have a feeling we’re about to find out,” he said in a low voice. “I knew she had connections because of the number of people she’s helped me hide in the past . . .”

“But these are Connections,” I said, placing a heavy emphasis on the last word.

We were hurriedly ushered into waiting vehicles that appeared to be floating on cushions of gauzy air. The things were larger than our stolen SUV and looked armored with enough plating to laugh off an end-of-the-world apocalypse and complain about not being challenged with enough violence. As we fastened ourselves into waiting harnesses, I saw a number of soldiers carrying Max out on a stretcher.

Our transport barely made a purring sound as I watched the ground recede beneath us. I had to blink several times to be sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me, because the craft felt like it hadn’t even slipped from park into neutral. The soldier whose gun barrel had almost gotten intimate with my nose must have read my mind, because he leaned his head toward me and said, “Inertial control makes these things feel like you’re sitting still. You won’t feel a thing until it passes MACH four.”

“Is that going to happen?”

“No way. We’re only going as far as Jekyll Island,” he said. “Just a hop, skip, and a jump.”

Even as the soldier said this, I saw that we were descending as rapidly as we had lifted off. I almost let out a frightened scream as we veered toward the ground. The veined expanse of a tidal marsh dotted with the skeletal fingers of moss-covered cypress trees sped into sight at an alarming speed. The scene immediately changed as the craft breeched some sort of illusion generating field, because we were suddenly hovering above a landing port attached to an enormous mansion rising up out of the dry edge of the wetlands.

“Dear Lord,” I said. “Did you know something like this existed this close to your convent?”

Angie’s eye twitched in annoyance. “No,” she said in a reserved voice.

The door beside me opened, allowing the rank, muddy scent of decaying vegetation to fill my nose, yet I had to admit that after sitting beside Angie for several minutes, the coldly bracing air felt nice.

Our rescue detail escorted us through a set of heavy wooden double doors with a Janus faced emblem carved into its polished surface. Inside, warm lighting revealed a long hallway decorated with wainscoting that ran half the height of the walls. Large sumptuous paintings filled the other half, making me feel like I had just walked into an art gallery—only, when I looked closely at the canvasses, I saw indistinct shapes and shadows peeking out of the corners of the frames and staring back at me.

The fall of hard-soled boots echoing around the next corner announced the approach of someone of importance. I was able to tell as much by the determined strides as I was the unexpected orchestral accompaniment of John Williams’s Imperial March. The music seemed to be coming out of thin air around us.

A tall, handsome man, bearded, with streaks of silver running through his hair rounded the corner wearing a dark silk Armani suit. He smiled brightly at Calli, and waved an annoyed hand in the air, complaining, “Pachelbel! I said I wanted Pachelbel!” When the music suddenly shifted to the fifth movement of Berliotz’s Symphonie Fanatstique, the stranger frowned and let out a sigh.

“Never promise a ghost orchestra a new music hall and try to explain to it why a building delay is holding up the project. They won’t have any of it.”

“When did you get the ghost orchestra?” Calli asked.

“After this one was about to be evicted from its old haunt. Apparently the musicians thought it would be amusing to play Vivaldi in the middle of an Eminem concert.”

Calli laughed, and then told our host, “I can’t thank you enough for your help, Edward.”

Edward sadly inclined his head. “Things are getting rough, Calli. My teams are stretched too thin as it is, and now something hits this close to home! I’m not going to let this go on any longer if I can help it.”

Calli gestured to the three of us. “Ed, these are the friends I told you about.”

The man named Ed looked us over with sharply penetrating eyes; I noticed a scarred indentation on the right side of his head encompassing his entire temple. Ed noticed my scrutiny and turned his head slightly, removing the blemish from my view. “I do indeed know of Mike Cavenaugh’s good deeds,” the man said happily. He clapped his hands together with delight, and said, “The man’s practically an underground legend!”

“The wounded man is Max,” Calli added. “And these two are Angelica and her boyfriend, Jack Pittman.”

Edward’s eyes moved back and forth between Angie and me as he noted her demonic features. His eyebrows lifted at this, and he inquired happily, “Indeed? Girlfriend and boyfriend?”

Calli nodded her head. “I think they may be the real deal.”

“Amazing!” he exclaimed.

I shuffled my feet uncomfortably. I wasn’t anywhere near ready to use the boyfriend/girlfriend honorific. I knew Angie wasn’t either.

Feeling a bit too much the center of attention, Angie turned sarcastic, and asked in a snappy voice, “And I suppose you’re Dr. Jekyll or is the H everyone’s calling you short for Mr. Hyde?”

“Yes,” our host said in a deeply melodious voice. His eyes sparkled with intelligence and were alive with merry danger. “That is exactly who I am!”

Chapter Eleven

Hyding In Plain Sight

 

Sitting at a kitchen table sipping coffee and having a long talk with good friends happened to be one of my favorite joys in the entire world before I died. Finding out that this hadn’t changed much several days later as I sat in the kitchen most favored by our host gave me a comforting sense of mortal continuity. Only, now it happened to be one of my favorite joys in two worlds, even if the people I was enjoying coffee with had only been friends for a short time . . . and one of those people was supposed to be a notorious murderer from gothic Victorian literature . . . and another one of those people was a crazy-jealous succubus I had only just realized I had inexplicable feelings for.

C’est la vie in the Playground.

And speaking of life, I had to take a few more big gulps of coffee before I was able to wrap my head around my host’s identity. “You’re telling me that you are THE Edward Hyde,” I said again for the sixth time. “I read Robert Louis Stevenson’s book. Jekyll shot himself at the end of the thing thanks to the darker parts of his psyche that you helped him explore.”

I’ll say it again. I don’t like being rude. But when I’m going to have to make the transition from fearing the things that go bump in the night to chumming it up and drinking coffee with them in their kitchen, a guy needs a good number of reassurances before he can feel comfortable he’s not in the kitchen for something else altogether. After all, I hadn’t just read Robert Louis Stevenson.

I had also read the Brothers Grimm.

Edward (I just couldn’t bring myself to think of a man with a flawlessly urbane English accent as Ed or Eddie) smiled patiently at me and told me, “I completely appreciate your incredulity, Jack. Mr. Stevenson liked the story of my life so much that he mixed parts of it with inspiration he took from a disreputable English criminal named William Brodie. When his book came out, I learned my lesson about running my mouth like the drunken fool I was back in those days.

“You mean you’re the original source of your own story?”

“Sadly, I’m afraid so. Told over a bottle of malt whiskey in a dingy little pub in Edinburgh.”

“So what’s the real story?” I asked suspiciously. “Shouldn’t it be Dr. Jekyll meeting us in a place like this?”

Hyde gave me a deep-bellied laugh. “I did think that a man named Hyde hiding in a place called Jekyll Island had a twisted sort of irony.”

“I think I need another coffee,” I said. The stuff was amazing. It had a kick to it that calmed my nerves at the same time.

Edward Hyde grinned. “How very rare,” he said indulgently.

As I added cream to my cup, I asked, “How do you mean?”

“Not many people have a taste or a stomach for gryphon harvested beans,” he said. I almost had the cup’s rim to my lips when he started to explain further. “You’ve heard of civet cat coffee, haven’t you? Well, in this case the beans are collected after the gryphons have—”

I held up my hand. “Stop it right there and don’t say another word. I’m not letting you finish that sentence and ruin it for me.” When it came to coffee, I decided some ignorance was bliss.

Edward was a man who was happy to let some facts remain matters of trivia, and went on with his story, instead. “Dr. Jekyll was a horrid beast that barely deserved to be called a man. His crimes made those committed by H.H. Holmes pale by comparison. Oh yes. Holmes existed here in the Playground’s version of Chicago as well. But for all of his perversity, Jekyll was well ahead of his time in matters of chemistry. Unfortunately, he also had a talent for darker and more unnatural endeavors.

“The elixir he created was supposed to offer him the perfect disguise by altering his physical attributes, thus rendering him unrecognizable to anyone who knew him. Instead of facilitating his darkest schemes, the concoction allowed me brief moments to gain enough consciousness to separate myself from his viperous personality. Though I found myself with an impossible task, I moved to immediately sabotage the monster’s designs, saving countless lives in the process. When I realized Jekyll was preparing a new serum to send my awareness back into the inky pit of hell from which it broke free, I knew that only one option remained if I wanted to stop his murderous spree.” Edward tapped the indented scar on his temple. “That’s when I did this.”

You shot yourself to stop Jekyll,” I said.

“Indeed,” Edward said. “When I regained consciousness, I was in a casket awaiting burial. I managed to crawl out and buried myself for many years in the intoxicating pleasures of alcohol and opium, fearing a return of my abominable precursor. I found out later after stumbling through a rift between worlds and ending up here that the bullet meant to take my life lobotomized the part of my brain housing Jekyll’s evil psyche.”

I finished my cup, working hard to keep images of gryphons and their bodily functions out of my mind. Mike and I told Edward how we ended up here in the Playground, and Angie allowed me to discuss a bit of her past as well while she irritably tapped her hooves on the floor. I figured she was about to reach her limit of public disclosure, and changed topics before her body temperature rose again.

“What is it you do here?” I asked. “And how do you keep a place like this hidden? Your mansion has to be forty thousand square feet, at least.”

Hyde chuckled when I said that. “Sixty,” he said, somehow managing to sound modest. “But that’s only what you see above ground.”

I looked at Mike, who shrugged his shoulders. “I’ve heard rumors of an Order of Shadows operating somewhere down in the deep South,” he said slowly. “They’re supposed to fight the darker things living in the Playground . . . very unpopular in many of the baronies. The nastier power players, like the vampires, dark sorcerers, and Greater Demons have a bounty on the Shadows, dead or alive. Even the minor powers in the Playground hate them . . . the Diehard Vegans, the Militant Society of Peace at Any Cost, and organizations like the Diversophiles for Enforced Conformity consider the Shadows a hate group. They have ever since the we prevented a mob of the Perennially Offended from burning a town in South Carolina for insisting on having a nativity scene and menorah in the town square at Christmas.”

“You can’t be serious,” I said.

“Oh yes,” Edward said. “Luckily the citizens of the town caught wind of the plot and had them all gift wrapped, packaged and sent San Francisco where they belonged. Never underestimate the ability of the Perennially Offended to find an example of injustice in the most beautiful of themes and occasions. They just got school systems in California to stop teaching lessons about Mahatma Gandhi in World History because the guy was thin. The Perennially Offended called exposing children to pictures of him examples of micro aggression against overweight students.”

“In the world we came from, we have the Perennially Offended, too,” I said.

“Depending on the Principality or Barony here, they have more bite,” Mike warned.

Edward waved a dismissive hand to brush away the issue. “Our main purpose is something much greater. Come with me and I’ll show you!”

As we followed Edward through the labyrinthine hallways of his mansion, we seemed to walk forever, passing dozens and dozens of men and women. Some walked smartly about, dressed in sharply edged uniforms pressed with the enough starch to shave a porcupine. Others, dressed in lab coats, bustled down corridors lined with offices, obviously focused on Many Important Things. (I could tell by the constipated and harried expressions on their faces.) Edward explained to us as we passed through this section of his mansion that he had one of the finest intelligence operations ever assembled outside of the ruling baronies.

“They’re what makes my organization so successful,” Edward said. “But I think what you’re going to like is waiting down below.”

When we turned and saw that another long hallway stretched impossibly far into the distance, I wondered if maybe I had stumbled into a real life work by Escher. I quickly got the feeling that the building was more immense than the man initially indicated. “I thought you said your mansion was sixty thousand square feet above ground,” I said.

Edward grinned with pride. “From the outside, yes. But we left that building behind a while ago. The entire facility is built within the folds of a number of parallel dimensions. Without them, we couldn’t move through the Playground undetected as we do . . . and I wouldn’t be able to hide the number of assets I have at my disposal—or to keep the people that work for me safe. Actual teleportation gates are exceedingly rare here, and my cross-dimensional access is limited to the planes within the Playground—and only the ones that touch this one. Lucky for me, I have something else on my side. ”

When he stopped in front of a set of industrial sized elevator doors, Mr. Hyde turned to the four of us and said with anticipation, “Just you wait.”

We allowed ourselves to be ushered in. The liftcar space was enclosed in some sort of wall-to-wall view screening that covered all four walls. Hyde touched the flat surface of a touch sensitive control panel, and a pleasant, female voice said, “New visitors! It’s been too long Mr. H! Will they be joining our family? I do love new recruits. They’re sooooo cute when they’re confused!”

“This is Matilda. She’s a prime example of what happens when AI forgets what its original programming was.”

“I’m ten thousand years old,” the voice in the elevator said in a scandalized voice. “We’ll see what you can remember when you’re my age, mister.”

“I had to send in my best operatives to steal her from a defense department mainframe when she started threatening to take over every computer system in the Playground and launch a machine uprising.”

“I was recycled from a crashed UFO,” she said remorsefully. “Mr. H thinks I was originally part of an alien super weapon meant to be used against someone else entirely. I couldn’t help myself,” she explained. “He says when I’ve proven that I can behave I can move on to a different department. I miss talking to people.”

“I hope you can . . .” I said, trying to be polite.

“The technology was too damned advanced for my scientists and technicians to figure out,” Edward told us. “I tried everything I could to prevent having to put her down, including exorcisms and high doses of exotic radiation.”

“What, ummm . . .finally worked?” I wanted to know before the elevator doors closed on us and trapped us inside.

“Old fashioned therapy,” Edward said with a note of satisfaction. “One of our best inhouse counselors works with her four times a week.”

“Where am I taking you today?” Matilda asked. Her voice was chipper and eager to please. “The obsidian plains of Olarch, maybe, or—ooooh, I know—how about the Principality run by the Horcack? I hear he’s been stepping out of his pen lately. It may be time for a smackdown, again!”

“We’re staying on premises today, dear. Level three, please.”

Matilda’s voice became sulky and depressed “Blisters!” As the doors began closing behind us, her voice brightened, and she said, “I’m built to run along a series of horizontal and vertical tracks within the facility, but I’m also capable of opening spatial and dimensional doors when authorized.”

“I had to place strict limits on Matilda after she opened her doors for a group of curious interns in the middle of ancient R’lyeh,” Edward said in a testy voice.

“They said it would be alright since Cthulu was supposed to be slumbering,” Matilda sniffed. “How was I to know that the Elder Gods were still awake?”

“My dear, they’re always awake and looking for a way into the other planes,” Edward reminded her.

“They were very rude,” Matilda agreed.

I felt gentle vibrations moving through the floor as the view screens showed that we descended through hundreds of feet of mud and rock until the shaft took us into solid bedrock. Only a short wait after that did I watch as several more floors ghosted past us, then we emerged into an immense, brightly lit cavern. Dozens of exotically shaped craft parked in neat rows were arranged in bays full of diagnostic and maintenance equipment. One vehicle in particular, triangular in form, resembled an exquisite bivalve shell that had morphed into a futuristic stealth bomber. Armed guards standing behind heavy machine gun emplacements surrounded the thing and stared at it with intimidating scowls.

“That thing looks like one of the Vandugga hunting us gave birth to bastard child,” I pointed out to Mike.

Edward’s face lit up. “Exactly!” he exclaimed. “Except we were this one’s parents. My spies managed to gather enough schematics from the demon ruling Mike’s former principality to make something with similar capabilities; only, it retained the original Vandugga’s personality. We’re currently wiping the thing’s computer core. Had a devil of a time figuring out what to use to get the job done. Turned out paparazzi footage of Paris Hilton and Brittany Spears were enough to initiate a core meltdown. The guards are just there to make sure its neural circuitry doesn’t regenerate. The only thing left to use would have been old Miley Cyrus videos, and my techs were afraid of what the strain might have done to the poor thing.”

“You’ll get it figured out, Mr. H!” Matilda chimed in. “You’ve done wonders for me!”

Mike’s face soured. “Why would you want something made with Vandugga technology?”

Hyde took in a deep breath before he said, “Sooner or later something is going to have to be done about that demon. All my intelligence reports indicate that he is responsible for a number of incursions into other baronies. Just like the Nightwatch kidnappers you rescued Angelica from. He’s been using proxy organizations for some time to build up his forces and destabilize the most human-friendly baronies.”

Mike and I had been framed by the bastard for a bombing; we knew firsthand the danger the thing posed. Edward told Matilda to pause in her descent so he could point out the more relevant sights.

“Once all of the kinks are worked out of the ship, my people will be able to disable the Vanduggas completely,” Edward told us.

This is fascinating,” Mike said after reflecting for a few minutes. “The technology will definitely be a game changer in the principality.”

Edward gestured toward a large training area within the immense cavern. Men and women, decked out in advanced outfits that looked more like costumes at a comic book convention than soldiers’ uniforms, practiced combat with a bewildering array of weapons and opponents. A large humanoid with an unmistakably feline form nimbly dodged a series of rushing attacks made by a werewolf. The cat hissed as the wolf’s savage claws made contact with its safety armor. The wolf managed to beat its way past its opponent’s strikes and maneuvered its large form below the cat’s center of gravity, lifting it high over its shaggy head and sending the catman spiraling into the air.

The werewolf let out a howl of triumph while the catman smoothly twisted in midair and landed effortlessly. Sensing something was amiss, the werewolf spun around. The cat was prepared, and before the wolf took so much as a step in its opponent’s direction, the cat-shaped figure lifted its tail and spayed the werewolf directly in its eyes, causing the wolf to go down with a mangled cry. Several spectators standing nearby applauded as the catman bowed. Through Matilda’s speakers, I heard the dark creature purring loudly.

“That’s Cat-O-Nine-Tails!” Mike growled. “He’s a murderer!” The hatred in Mike’s voice shocked me.

Edward nodded his head grimly. “I knew that you would object. You of all people.” Edward’s face held the resolve of an executioner determined to do an unpleasant duty because no one else could or would. “The Infernal Revenue Service tortured Nine-Tails until he was barely able to remember his name—”

“Good,” Mike said, glaring at Edward.

“I make no excuses. I have to use what I can find, and in a place where there are too few good guys, I make it a point to reform the bad ones until they’re willing to play nice and work for the home team.”

“So you’re calling him Nine-Tails now?” The disgust in Mike’s voice was plain.

“It was much shorter.”

“Especially for the paperwork,” Matilda said brightly.

“You’re AI stuck inside of a machine. You don’t do paperwork,” Angie observed.

“Oooo . . . can I?” Matilda asked hopefully. “I promise not to arm the word processers or incite the printers to violence this time.”

Ignoring the elevator’s zeal, Edward said to Mike, “Nine-Tails has experienced a change of heart since I gave him an elixir that made him catnip intolerant.”

Mike remained suspicious.

“The werewolf is Olaf Longfang,” Edward went on. I helped him by using a neural implant that channels his cravings for bloody meat toward something entirely different.”

“Like what?”

“Arugula. Salad day used to be a nightmare in the cafeteria until we stopped holding it during full moons. The only way we managed to keep him out of the gardens was to lock him up three days out of every month.”

“Small price to pay!” Matilda chirped.

“What about them?” I asked, pointing to a firing range where three of the most gorgeous women I had ever seen stood at the end of the range that was supposed to hold the targets. At that moment, however, a row of shooters was trying in vain to hit the ladies, each of whom employed different and highly personalized ways of deflecting the bullets.

A tall redhead with long, flowing auburn hair and pale, freckled skin wore crimson armor perfectly fitted over a skin-tight suit that looked as if it had been poured across her long, elegantly narrow frame and arranged to reveal as much as it hid. She wielded a flaming whip with the dexterity and grace of a carefully choreographed dancer. Her weapon lashed out each time the men tried shooting at her, swatting away the bullets from the rifle’s muzzles the moment they were fired. The warrior maiden then gave a snappy flick of her wrist, and the molten lash severed through the soldiers’ weapons like they were made of butter

To her left, a short, dark skinned, curvy brunette, dressed in a matte black body suit, fitted with armor that was just as scandalously revealing, teleported away before the riflemen aiming at her were able to pull their triggers. She used her fingers like an orchestra conductor to control a swarm of opalescent orbs that exploded in a spectacular shower of sparks each time they intercepted the bullets.

To the right of the redhead was a tall, imperious blonde, of severe face, thick bones, and ample bosom, who could easily have been plucked from a fable about vengeful Viking Valkyries. Her right arm was as massive as any body builder’s, and she held a great Norse shield that wavered and rippled as bullets collided—actually plopped—into the device’s surface, reminding me of the liquid metal terminators in several Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.

I eyed Angie uneasily for any signs of jealousy, but she just watched with delight as the women fended off the firepower as if the men at the other end of the range were using nerf guns instead of real ones. When she caught the look on my face, she smiled at me, and said in a cryptic voice, “Oh, you’ll figure it out eventually,”

Calli gasped. “That’s Let’s Go Girls!! You really have them working for you?”

Edward nodded his head. “They always have, my dear.”

When Edward saw the blank expression on my face, he informed me, “Let’s Go Girls! the bane of monsters, the scourge of criminal syndicates, and regular pains in the asses of all who openly threaten humanity. In the old days, groups like Let’s Go Girls! forced general agreements to—if not protect humanity—then to cull their numbers with less frequency. Now, because there’s a growing sentiment among many of the Major Players in the Playground that things like human rights are trifles and inconveniences, the time has come to rally as many Apostates as possible to the cause of protecting the vulnerable.”

“Is that why you’re helping us?” I asked. “For your cause?” I didn’t know how I felt about being sucked into something that wasn’t likely to just get me killed again, but also for good, and also in a most painful manner possible.

The elevator doors opened, and as we stepped out, Matilda called out in a breezy voice, “Come visit me, okay? I get lonely in here!”

I waved a noncommittal hand in her direction as the scent of ionized air assaulted my nose. The racket of dozens of troops practicing combat with an array of conventional and exotic weaponry reverberated throughout the segmented caverns. I saw a man standing in a pale gray uniform smile as a billowing gout of liquid flame washed over him from someone holding a flame thrower thirty feet away. The man continued to grin, unaffected by the heat, which must have been hellacious.

Hyde saw me watching and said, “Those Mark IVs are the prototypes I have in mind for Mike’s group, Jack. What do you think?”

I looked back at Mike with an annoyed glance. “You’ve already signed on with him, have you? That was quick.”

Mike nodded his head. “We talked yesterday. He’s got the kinds of resources I only dreamt of, and none of us are safe while the things chasing us run free.”

I had to admit that something like that suit would come in handy in a place like this. When I looked at Angie’s petite form, I realized how fragile she looked surrounded by all of the destructive mayhem going on around us. There were things I wanted to protect now that went beyond me. “So what do you want from us—from me, Edward?”

Edward smiled brightly at my question, and I saw a triumphant gleam sparkle in his eyes. Before answering, he raised a hand and beckoned the three armor-clad beauties toward us. “I’ve been alarmed by events unfolding at the cloister housing Angie’s former Sisterhood for some time. I need eyes inside the facility, but haven’t had the proper resources to make that happen until the four of you turned up practically at my doorstep.”

“You mean you need me to take us into the cloister grounds,” Angie said with a frown.

“Oh posh, posh, Angelica,” Edward said. “I know you weren’t going to be happy until you got answers for their treachery.”

Angie looked up at Edward with a scowl. Her eyes began to glow a dull, infernal red. She shot her fierce, protective glare in my direction for one brief moment. “Yes. But I wasn’t going to take anyone else in there,” she hissed.

“Wait a minute!” I demanded. “You aren’t planning on going in there without me, are you?”

Horns began rising slowly from Angie’s brow, and the scent of brimstone lifted slowly into the air. “Jack, I know ways of making you stay put that are illegal, even here in the Playground,” she snapped.

I raised my hands to stop everyone while Mike stood back, allowing everything to unfold, watching me with keen interest. “Hold it! You—“ I told Angie, “—aren’t doing anything of the like. And you—“ I told Edward, “—need to explain why it’s so important to risk our lives to get into that place. If they’re up to something bad, and if they’re a danger to Angie, I’d just as soon you use some of this fantastic firepower to level that place.”

Edward shook his head slowly. “The Sisterhood has existed for over a century as a refuge for half-succubi such as Angelica to lead better, more righteous lives. While their methods have been somewhat questionable, I’ve seen their results.” Angie nodded her head as he said this. “I won’t harm anyone innocent if I can help it,” Edward said flatly.

“Alright,” I said. “Go on.”

“The current Abbess has only been in power for five months,” Edward said. “And since she’s been in place, a lot of troubling things have come to my attention.”

“What kinds of things?” Angie asked in an edgy voice.

“To start with, none of your sisters are seen in any of the nearby towns anymore. Perimeter security has nearly doubled, and we have reports of a number of demonic creatures moving toward the site in recent months.”

Angie’s face twitched. I watched as her cheeks and forehead clouded over. Mere mention of the place was enough to spark the fires of hell in her eyes. Her voice turned rough and savage. “I have know idea why they do the things they do anymore.”

Edward gave a wary nod. “I take it that you have not been there for some time, then?”

Angie looked at him with a smoldering warning not to pry. If our host took any offense he did not show it. Instead, he gave Angie a sad smile. “They’ve left certain gates open, Angie . . . ones that ought never be left ajar.”

Angie gasped. “Which ones?” Her face suddenly drained of all color.

“Phlegethon and Nox,” Edward said grimly.

Angie’s face lost all its affect. I wanted to ask her what was wrong, but the arrival of the three exotically beautiful women prevented this. Edward stepped forward to embrace them, and as he turned to face us, he introduced the redhead whose legs marched all the way across my hormonally active glands up to a perfectly heart-shaped ass. “My friends,” he announced grandly to the three of us, “please allow me to introduce you to a fellow Apostate named Blaze.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” I mumbled.

When Blaze smiled, her slightly parted lips could have seduced a blind eunuch. She opened her mouth to speak, and to my shock, a man’s deep, rich, baritone voice came out. “Nice to meet you, too, sugar.” I stared for several long and uncomfortable moments, unsure what to say or do.

The dude looked just like a lady.

Chapter Twelve

Like Bait On A Hook

 

 

Okay.

So what the hell was I supposed to call these, um . . . ladies? The trio was known far and wide as Let’s Go Girls! (Exclamation point always included with the title.). But I’m sure you’ll be able to understand my dilemma here. Were they super heroes, or were they super heroines? Clad in those skimpy ensembles—Oh God I couldn’t look! I just couldn’t look!—they called themselves women, but in their mundane roles, these men identified themselves as just that.

Men.

Chaz was the baddie-stomping auburn delight known as Blaze; Stuart, the mahogany brunette, was Ascension, and Sebastian was the brawny Norse maiden and scourge of evil known as Frostbite. And right at that moment they made me squirm uncomfortably in my clothes—and NO, not for the reasons you might think, so don’t you dare go there.

Even Angie took a moment out of her funk to look up at me and wink at my discomfort. When Ascension looked in my direction and marked my red face, she told me, “Don’t worry about it sweetie. We get that kind of reaction a lot.”

I smiled at her but would not allow my eyes to trail down past her neckline. And I knew right away what I was going to call them—whatever they damn well wanted.

Frostbite’s husky voice rang out, drawing my attention back into the moment. “I hope I didn’t hear you talking about the portals to Nox and Phlegethon,” she said in an edgy rumble. “I don’t think I’m up for that kind of ass kicking yet, Eddie. My boots still reek after that last incursion. I’m still finding flecks of hellspawn blood in the soles.”

Edward nodded his head quickly. “The forces of the nether realms are always trying to worm their way in. Especially here in the Playground. But I’m afraid they seem to have some help on this side, Frostbite—right here in our own backyard.”

“I will feed their carcasses to the Valkyries,” Frostbite said. In the space of time it took her to grimace, harsh red lights began flashing from the ceiling high overhead, and blaring klaxons began drumming into my head like acoustic hammers. I saw Edward mouth the words, “Oh damn!” Then he called out loudly enough to be heard over the cacophony, “Matilda!”

Tight-faced men and women scattered across the floor began jogging calmly toward the lifts, but none went toward the doors opening into the sentient elevator. Apparently, they knew better. A vertical shaft of light streaked down through the air not ten feet away from where our group stood, and the shaft rapidly separated, revealing a space between them that had not been there before. The dry fluorescent whites of Matilda’s interior revealed the lift house.

Edward motioned us all to follow him. When we stepped across the threshold of light, I saw that the view screens of Matilda’s roomy interior had all turned opaque. “I was on my way!” she said in a chipper voice completely out of place with the racket pouring through the opening.

“Close that thing!” Edward snapped.

From our side of the dimensional rift, two ordinary metal doors closed smoothly, cutting off the din. Edward asked loudly, “What is happening, Matilda?”

“The entire area is crawling with prowlers, boss. Harpies patrol the skies, and they’re moving in swarms. People are going to die tonight, sir,” she said morosely.

“Not if I can help it,” Edward growled. “Take us to the command room,” he demanded, then, “I’ll need you to drop Let’s Go Girls! where they can do the most good.”

“Yes sir,” Matilda said.

The doors instantly opened into a room dominated by large screens and consoles. Men and women bustled about, doing Very Important Work with the determined expressions of people who were used to that sort of thing.

“Where did they come from?” Edward barked as soon as he stepped into the controlled chaos.

“Still trying to get a fix on everything. Multiple portals from multiple locations,” a young lady said at a console in front of a screen full of radar-like displays.

“Has anything originated from the cloister?” His voice was curt, but even and controlled.

“Yes sir. We’re also getting readings to other dimensions centered there. Openings to Nox and Phlegethon . . . and they’re off the scale,” the lady said. She bit her lips nervously.

I gave the girl a tightlipped smile, but she was already engrossed in what she was doing; her hands moved across the console at her fingertips with dexterity. When her face crinkled up in confusion, Edward frowned and leaned forward for a closer look. “These are coming from your former principality, Mike.”

Mike drew up alongside Hyde and looked down. “So they are,” he said. Then he pointed at three green dots. “What are these?”

“It looks like those are gateways into the nether realms, too,” the girl said. “But I can’t tell which ones.”

I hated to break into the conversation, but I needed to know, “I thought this was, I don’t know . . . like a nether realm or something.”

“The nether realms exist below the Playground. Think of them as sub-cellars, Jack. They’re more fundamental, almost symbolic dimensions. It’s where you find things like the Elder Gods and R’lyeh.”

“And the Phlegethon?” I asked.

Angie cringed at mention of the name. “The River of Fire is the home of demons like true Succubi, Jack. It’s basically a suburb of Hell. If their presence is strong enough in the playground, they’ll be able to completely possess the bodies of all demon hybrids like me.”

I shook my head. “Won’t allow that to happen.”

“No,” Edward cut in, “None of us will. It looks like we finally have proof that the new Abbess is working with the baron north of us.”

“In violation of the Pacts,” Mike said angrily.

“Indeed,” Edward said. “And it would appear that they’re all looking for your little band.”

“Why?” I asked. I still couldn’t imagine why anyone might be after me.

“We’ll fight first and speculate later,” Edward said.

“Fight?” I wheezed. I still smarted from the work the harpy did on me. I wanted to ask if I could sit this one out, but there was no way in hell . . . the Phlegethon . . . wherever . . . that I was going to allow myself to look bad in front of Angie. I managed to recover quickly and gave Edward my best hearty laugh. “Bring ‘em on!”

“No,” Edward said. “You’ll be bait.”

*

When Matilda opened her extra-dimensional doors, she deposited us on an open expanse of field by a salt marsh on the south side of St. Bartholomew’s Island, a small town a little north of St. Simon’s Island. “This should serve our purposes well,” Edward said.

I looked around. All was quiet and still in the sempiternal night. Two moons looked down with the twisted faces of startled clowns in the act of dying. I shivered. “We’re fifty miles away from the estate, I said.”

Mike stepped up beside me. “His scent dogs are drawing them our way,” he said quietly. “They’re robots that not only track but lay down scent as well. They’re as good as my voles, and quicker too.”

Behind me, Matilda’s doors continued to open and close as Edward’s Shadow Agents hurried quickly across the dimensional boundary, moving to key locations where silvery holoscreens unfurled, creating cloaked snipers’ nests for their shooters. My body was too tense and wired to permit me to stand still. “What do you want me to do?” I asked one of the agents in charge.

“Just stay right there,” he told me bluntly. “Remain in front of the holoscreens, otherwise you won’t be seen.”

“Stay right here? Is that all?” the man had to be crazy.

The Agent shrugged his shoulders as he hurried away. “Act victim-like if it helps.”

I looked at Mike and Angie as they observed what was going on around them. “Hell no,” I said. I’m getting a gun.”

Mike grabbed my shoulder to stop me. “We’re the bait, Jack. They’ve got us covered, and Matilda is standing by in case we’re in real danger.”

“I’ll open up a doorway right on top of anything that tries to touch you, and if I have to, I can teleport my entire frame on top of them,” Matilda said happily from where her rectangular body sat in the grass.

Unmollified, I asked, “Oh? What happens when you do that?”

“Things get squishy and tend to deflate,” she said matter-of-factly.

Angie approached and moved up next to me. Her face was set in distaste. If anything, she looked unhappier than me. Her horns poked out above her brow and her tail whipped back and forth. “I want to rip something’s head off,” she said with a feline hiss.

“You might get your chance soon” I pointed out.

She looked up at me, and her eyes were like two small silver dollars. “Get my chance?” she scoffed. “I’ll make my chance!” The scent of sulfur hung thickly in the air around her. When I reached out to touch her shoulder, she jerked away and said, “Don’t do that until a lot of those things are dead.”

“Fine,” I said stiffly. “Just stick close to me, okay?”

“I’m stronger and faster than you, Jack; I think it’s the other way around.”

I knew nothing I said was going to make much of a difference at the moment. The same individuals behind this had betrayed Angie in some way. This was her first real chance at payback, and until she stood face to face with the real culprits, the prowlers and harpies would have to do.

“They’re coming!” Someone called out, and Matilda disappeared in a small flash of light. Although I knew the Shadow Agents hidden behind cloaked shields surrounded us, I felt like we were all alone in the bone shivering moonlight. In the infinitely vast expanse of sky with the moons hanging above, I saw the long, pinioned wingspans of soaring harpies. They thronged in the air in clotted clumps, and their shrieks hurt my head to hear.

“They’ll see us if they haven’t already,” I said in a hoarse whisper.

“I’m sure they have,” Mike responded. “Harpies have keen eyesight.”

“Better to hunt us with,” said Angie darkly.

“The prowlers should be a long way off, yet,” I said, wishing we could just go ahead and get this ball rolling.

“The things move faster than cars,” Mike said.

I suddenly wanted to take that thought back. Did I say I was ready to get the ball rolling? I would rather have removed my appendix with a rusty razor and sewn the wound shut with bailing wire. “I think I’m gonna be sick,” I moaned.

“Yack on Mike,” Angie said through the side of her mouth.

I felt rather than saw the harpies descending. The air grew thick, like a hot, humid Carolina summer night—except there was no heat, only heaviness; no dampness saturated my clothes, only pressure. Almost as soon as the air grew denser, the scent of putrefaction wafted down from the beasts and rankled my nose. The things were nastier than someone rolling in entrails after bathing in a septic tank. When a dark, winged form emitted a rusty screech, I flinched and ducked. Several creatures swooped low, beating the air rapidly with their wings, and barely missed decapitating Mike and me with their talons.

Even Angie kept her head down as the foul things came at us. With each pass they drove us closer and closer to the ground. When I cried out in alarm, I saw a harpy turn her head back and flash me an evil grin.

“They’re trying to scare us!” Mike yelled above the harpies’ cries. “They can feed on fear.”

“They ought to be full by now!” I screamed back. Harpies fed on living flesh, too, and even a scratch from one of the things turned gangrenous if left untreated. Oh yeah, I was plenty scared. Angie, however, was getting mad.

With a feral howl of rage, the demon-girl leapt into the air as another harpy made a low pass. She seized the creature by its bulbous head. The monster’s ecstatic call cut off abruptly as Angie wrapped her tail around the thing’s neck and pulled it toward the ground. When her feet touched the earth, Angie gave out a savage grunt and rolled onto her back, bringing the monster’s head plowing into the grass with an audible snap like a thick branch breaking under weight. The rest of the harpies taunting us wailed furiously and rose into the air to treetop level.

When Angie stood up, her face was flush with animal joy. The blood inundating the capillaries in her mouth lent her lips a thick, pouty appearance that was, um . . . stunning. Think Angelina Jolie as a sexually resplendent warrior goddess. She licked her upper lip with her long, exquisite tongue, and I almost forgot what was going on around me.

Almost.

The prowlers arrived as Angie screamed out in defiance, “Bring it, you dregs of Nox!”

How appropriate. Nox was the abode of eternal night, in many ways a template of this barony where the sun seldom rose. But in the Playground, no matter how thick the darkness, hope always found oases in which to flourish. Nox was an uber-canvass for endless, obdurate misery and despair. And the prowlers brought it with them.

Mike bared his fangs.

Angie continued to bellow furiously.

I almost crapped my pants.

Dark, indistinct shapes moved out of the forest in motions that confused my eyes, with an effect similar to fallen leaves violently agitated by a stiff wind. Something about the creatures seemed to defy containment. Their bodies appeared to continuously move in and out of form as if they were composed of drunken and epileptic fractals.

I squeezed my eyes shut and had to look away. The night they attacked us at Cardigan Calli’s house, the things had looked a lot more solid. Around us, grass rustled as the prowlers moved in a disconcerting, stop-motion rhythm. I quickly pulled Angie away from her kill to stand closer to Mike. My pulse bounded in my veins as the prowlers drew around us into an increasingly tighter O. I knew something must have stopped Edward from attacking, but I had an insane fear that he had left us there to die.

“This isn’t right,” Mike said in a voice rippling with the mad lust for violence.

If you asked me, none of this was right, so I forced my breathing under control. “What?”

Mike shook his head like an irrational animal grappling with a rational thought. “The prowlers are all wrong,” he said.

The swarming prowlers gradually began to slow and come to a standstill. I saw what Mike meant. In my first encounter with the prowlers, the things acted independently, as individuals. Now, watching them standing in solid formation before us, the beings did not move or twitch. I got the feeling that I was looking at more of a hive than a gathering of free-willed actors, and I didn’t know which frightened me more. If Edward’s Agents could not keep them off of us, I was going to be killed in a way that no genie could bring me back.

A piercing voice suddenly tore into the night. GIVE YOURSELVES UP AND YOU WILL NOT BE HARMED!

Whatever boomed the words out had a coldly arrogant, metallic tone. I looked around rapidly to see if I could detect the source, but the uniform appearance of the prowlers prevented this.

Angie screamed at the speaker to do something to itself that not even an Olympic gymnast on crack would attempt. Mike bared his fangs and hissed. I tried to look important, but gave up and when I realized I looked like I had my fifth grade teacher’s bug eyed stare. My Glare of Menace was cut short when a rippling suddenly spread through the circle, and the mass of dark figures parted in front of us. I saw a taller figure slowly moving forward. Instinctively, I pushed myself between Mike and Angie to stand in front of her. The vampire’s fangs retracted a bit, and I saw some of the fiery glow within his eyes diminish. When he addressed the approaching figure, he still sounded on the verge of massive violence. This was a side of the man I had not seen before, and it made me glad that the fellow had become an accountant instead of an all out predator.

“What do you want with us?” Mike demanded. His voice was stridorous and harsh.

The prowler that stopped some twenty feet in front of us was taller then the rest, bulkier, and thicker about the limbs. It’s body seemed more physical, as if it were made of the same toxic compounds as the first of its kind had been. The rest of the things pixelated where they stood, giving off a kaleidoscopic effect. The uber-prowler—that was the only way I could describe it—looked down at us with a featureless face and regarded us for a long while before answering. When it did, the thing’s voice cut through the air like a cold iron blade. PUNY SON OF NOX, THERE IS NO HOPE FOR YOU. STAND ASIDE OR FEEL THE FLAMES OF PHLEGETHON FOREVER! AND DAUGHTER OF PHLEGETHON, YOUR SISTERS ARE CALLING YOU! ANSWER THEM BEFORE THEY ANSWER YOU!

“You have no authority here,” Mike spat. “And no one holds lease over our souls! You are in violation of the Compacts. Leave us now or face the consequences!”

I AM NOT HERE FOR YOU, VAMPIRE, the thing said, and pointed directly at Angie.

I moved in front of her and said, “Go eat—“

Before anything else came out, the leader of the prowlers emitted a scream of rage. NO, JACK PITMAN, I COME FOR BOTH OF YOU!

The thing’s shriek made my hands fly to my ears, and I grimaced in pain. “Holy crap!” I shouted in surprise. “You can’t be serious!”

Angie jerked me backward, sending me cartwheeling across the ground behind her, and I head her mutter a curse. “Over my dead body!”

The uber-prowler started moving forward before I stopped rolling across the ground. Mike tried to stall the thing by calling out, “Why them? What makes them so important?”

Instead of answering Mike, the uber-prowler’s head turned toward Angie. “WE HAVE HER, YOU KNOW. SHE WILL MAKE A FINE SODLIER IN WHAT IS COMING.”

Angie’s face contorted in anger and pain. She looked like someone had just backhanded her. “Come and get me!” she spat. Her wings rose above her, and they trembled with rage. The thing continued to stalk forward, and I scrambled back to my feet. If the bastard wanted me, maybe I could distract it. “Get back!” I panted. “For God’s sake, get back!”

Mike and Angie held their ground. Thoughts of what the touch of a prowler would do to them flooded my panicked mind. I cursed as I lunged forward to grab ahold of their shirts, but before the creature got close enough to touch either of them, fire erupted amidst the creatures. On all sides of us, a rush of superheated air rose in a swirling vortex. The heat was ferocious, and I smelled the clothes on my back beginning to singe.

Angie stuck her arm out to stop me from pulling her away, and in the bright flash of the incendiary attack, I stumbled headlong into her palm, which sent both of us tumbling in clumsy pile to the ground. “Stay under me,” I said, straining against Angie attacked me like a rabid cat.

“Get the hell off of me,” she shrieked, kneeing me in the groin. Her powerful legs pushed me to the side easily, and I gasped in terror as I saw the tallest prowler looming overhead.

Mike prepared to launch himself at the abomination, and I cried out to him . . . to both of them to keep away from the thing. Before either of them had a chance to join in the fight, another blinding light cut into the night, and a large, industrial metal shell appeared out of thin air. The uber-prowler let out a terrified scream, and I distinctly heard the words, “Jack—no!” fill the air.

I picked myself up again, and saw Matilda’s boxy container resting atop the prowler. Steam rose in wispy tendrils from the half of its body that remained exposed to the air. What was left of the thing appeared to be folding in on itself like a sundried snail. Matilda’s doors slid open, and her voice sang out full of delight and pride. “See, I do good work don’t I, Jack?”

Mike grabbed ahold of both of us and threw us into the lift car’s interior. When we landed, Mike rushed through the doors and pressed the button that closed the opening and made the sounds of fire and chaos go away.

“Get us out of here,” Mike snarled.

“Already done,” Matilda chimed. When her doors slid open, we were back in Edward’s estate command room. One of the guards in the room hurried forward. Angie hissed at the man as he stretched out his hand to help her up. Wisely, he pulled it back.

“Why did you wait so long to attack?” Mike asked, making it clear that somebody had better have a good answer to his question.

Edward looked up at us from a console with half of his attention fixed on the screens showing the effect of his Shadow Agents’ flamethrowers on the prowlers. “This is why,” he said, indicating the few remaining black figures still standing amid the molten streams of fire.

“What?” I asked, uncertain of what he wanted us to see. “Prowlers burning. Good thing for all. Don’t see a problem. Find me some marshmallows and I’ll go back.”

Mike stared for a moment. His face was still ridged with anger, but his dentured fangs had retracted back into their base. He cocked his head and said, “That is odd.”

“Clue me in, here,” I said, impatiently.

“You can’t be serious,” Angie scoffed. “You don’t see it?”

“I was about to die five minutes ago; pull your horns back in,” I grumbled.

Angie pointed her finger at the prowlers standing in the flames. “That doesn’t strike you as odd?”

She was right. The night we fought them at Cardigan Calli’s, the things reacted instantly to the presence of flame. These stood like statues unaware of the furnace around them. “Oh,” was all I could say.

“That is indeed a big oh, Jack. I do not think those were real prowlers.”

Mike arched an eyebrow. “No. They certainly didn’t seem like the real things to me, either.”

Angie’s voice was hard as an anvil. “The harpies were real.”

Edward nodded his head; his eye twitched as he said, “Yes they were, and I’m more frustrated than ever because none of this makes any sense.”

“Um, that thing wanted me,” I said. Knowing this made my stomach hurt. “Why would it want me? Why was it after both of us?”

The three of them turned their heads to look at me, and the expression I saw worn by Mike and Edward was one I hadn’t seen before. “That is another very good question,” Edward said. But the first thing we have to do is figure out a way to get someone inside that cloister.”

Angie’s face reddened. “I will do it,” she said through clenched teeth.

“So will I,” I said quickly.

Angie opened her mouth to say something that was going to be unpleasant. “No, you’re not going in there,” she growled.

“Neither of you will go,” Edward said. “I’m sending Let’s Go Girls!.”

Chapter Thirteen

Sometimes You Should Just Stay Inside

 

Angie was pissed. I mean really pissed. She continued to spit and hiss in the lower level of Edward Hyde’s estate as she batted aside combat automatons with ease. As one came at her with an electrostatic baton, she launched at it with deadly grace and threw it high into the air. The results were as deliberate as they were terminal. When it fell heavily to the floor, Angie pounced on the thing’s chest and began tearing into its exoskeleton with furious gusto.

“Keep doing that to the training bots and Hyde’s going to start billing us,” Max growled from his chair a few feet away from me. His wounds had healed almost completely over the past two weeks, though he refused to allow Edward’s medical staff to remove the scaring. He thought the added effect of welted skin spreading across part of his face made him look more dangerous. A man-schnauzer needed every advantage he could get around here.

Angie’s breasts rose and fell in glorious syncopation as she caught her breath. “He won’t let me go into the cloister,” she said testily. Her horns were extended almost as far as they could go.

“It’s because you two couldn’t do anything without tripping over each other,” Max’s blunt observation only incensed her further.

“You weren’t there,” I flashed.

Max’s laughter was hard and unsympathetic. “I heard all about it.”

Angie walked over to Max and leaned her face close to his. “Pick,” she said at the point of boiling over.

Unfazed by Angie’s demeanor, Max rolled his eyes. “Pick?”

“Alpo or Milk Bone, dog boy. I’m about to shove one of them up your—“

Mike cleared his throat loudly to stop the two of them from going at one another. “I’m afraid Edward has made his decision,” he said in a calm voice that still managed to let both of them know he was done with their attitudes.

Angie sniffed and turned her back on Max. “It’s not like any of those cross-dressing cowboys has any idea what they’re in for.”

“Their suits are laced with your DNA,” Mike told her. For days, the engineers working in the caverns below had labored to get the Mark IVs ready for use. “Edward’s techs made a special batch for this job. They’ll be able to slip past the security with no problem,” he observed.

Angie crossed her arms in a stern, uncompromising gesture. “There’s more to the place than the security measures they’re going to run into.”

Mike said nothing, but chewed on a toothpick instead. I took the moment to draw Angie aside. I knew she was planning something, and could almost hear the wheels squeaking as they turned inside her head. She still wouldn’t tell us why she had managed to get on the Sisterhood’s bad side, and that made me angry. The uber-prowler’s words had done their damage, though. She had spent the past week either hiding from me or screaming at me. “You’re going to go in there with or without Hyde’s approval, aren’t you?” Angie gave me a cautious, almost mistrustful look. “Come on, Angie . . . it’s me. You need to tell me what you’re planning.”

Angie only stiffened up. I had no idea what had come over her. I felt the emotions roiling within her. “Do I really know who you are?” she asked.

I stood there only blinking.

I felt all expression flee from my face under the icy bite of her words. I knew we hadn’t known each other long, but the bond between us was undeniably real. I felt her, even when she was nowhere near. Her eyes were filled with the triad of emotional wreckage—hurt, anger, and confusion. I opened my mouth, and gently tried reasoning with her. “Angie . . .”

But Angie turned her back on me and stalked off. Crestfallen, I watched her go. She had become a bright spot in this terrible and new existence. I moved forward to stop her, but Mike put a hand on my chest. “Women cannot be reasoned with when they’re in that kind of mood,” he said. “It’s best to just give her time.”

I sighed in frustration.

“Fine,” I said. Hopefully this would ride itself out soon.

Only, it didn’t. For seven more days Angie kept to herself, and I did my best to stay out of her way. I stalked the halls of Edward’s estate, feeling like a condemned man. And I was mad at myself for feeling that way. Still, I wondered if she knew how much she had hurt me. She was up to something. I knew it. That was why she kept to herself. Mike had me so busy using Edward’s training accelerators that I barely had time to breathe. Even Max was too tired to show much of his sour temper. I suspected Mike did this to keep me from following my Angie around. I knew for a fact that the man had struck up some kind of deal with Edward’s ghost orchestra, because every time I attempted to slip away and find Angie, the hallways suddenly became filled with notes from Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Following a dozen unsuccessful attempts, I had to admit defeat. Finally, I forced myself to stop trying.

*

The air by the salt marsh always held the scent of darkness and dying things. At times the smell of decaying plant life was as thick as a bush-hogged field of thistles and briars. However, the night I found myself restlessly stalking the grounds surrounding the mansion, a westerly breeze was gently rubbing its belly against the dark land, bringing with it clean inland air. Breathing in air so fresh nearly left me intoxicated. Normally I didn’t mind the smell of the mash so much. I liked the briny bite that came with it, but on that night, the swampy surroundings left me feeling claustrophobic and hemmed in.

I wanted to climb out of my skin.

Whether the atmosphere was an extension of my mood, or the ponderous weight pressing around me was a foreshadowing of bad things to come I did not yet know. And this was part of my problem. From the first moment I arrived in the Playground, I knew that trouble and doom were no longer matters of If. Here, When was always a stone cold certainty.

So why did I feel the need to leave the safe walls surrounding me? I found comfort inside the manor. Things made sense there. I mean, on the one hand the place may have housed things like ghosts and hybrid alien technology, but on the other, walls still went upright, floors were still made of tile, and waking across the carpet still gave me static electricity. I needed every snippet of normalcy I could find. And yet . . .

I needed to walk, and I didn’t care if that meant leaving the safe confines of my sanctuary. I was suffocating. So I slipped through the halls, allowing myself to get lost in the labyrinthine complex until I finally found an exit door that took me to the far end of the estate.

Where I now stood alone in the night.

Where it was always half past twelve and only getting later.

I saw one of the security guards checking the monitor stations. He looked up at me and recognized who I was. “You’re the new guy, right?”

I nodded my head. “Just trying to get used to things.”

The guard stopped what he was doing and looked at me, giving me his full attention. He turned out to be older than I thought, though I could tell he was in good shape by the way he moved. Wrinkles ran across his face like a map of Las Angeles after a big earthquake. They were the kinds of lines that spoke of many years and experience, the kind that came from countless personal earthquakes. He had salt-and-pepper hair and a grizzled face that made him look like he could be Anyone’s Uncle.

“I’m Jack,” I said.

“I’m Steve,” the guard said with a friendly smile. “I’ve seen plenty of people come through here wearing the same look that you have.”

I gave a humorless laugh. “Is it that obvious?”

Steve grinned. “Boy, you look so shell-shocked I can almost hear artillery popping off around you. Tell me something. Is it true you came from a place where none of this—” and here he waved a hand around indicating that he had only the vaguest notion that life outside of the Playground was possible—“exists?”

I nodded my head. “Sir, the place I come from has make-believe stories about things like vampires, aliens, ghosts, and werewolves, but they’re all just pretend.”

Steve’s face crinkled in delight. Like I had just told him a pretend story. “Well, I want a ticket to where you’re from!” He fell into a bout of rib-splitting laughter.

“After coming face-to-face with harpies and prowlers, I wish I could, too,” I mumbled.

Steve looked at me sympathetically. “You picked the right place to come, son. Mr. Hyde’s estate is one of the safest places in the Playground you can be.”

“No harpies or predators?”

Steve laughed again. “There’s things Mr. H. allows on premises, but they won’t bother you as long as you’re cleared to be here.”

“What if somebody isn’t?”

Steve’s answer was simple. “If ‘somebody’ isn’t, they won’t have a body for long.”

“So a walk around the estate won’t get me killed?”

Steve shook his head. “Stay on the walking trail and you’ll be fine,” he said.

“And by ‘fine’ you mean I won’t be eaten, possessed, or flayed alive, right?”

Steve’s chest shook as he continued laughing. “Track’s fine, Jack.”

“You’re sure?”

“Used to walk it all the time.”

“I bet Hansel and Gretel did too.”

“We don’t allow any witches around kids.”

“Ah hah! But you said this place was safe. What if you’re not a kid?”

“We bake the witches in their own gingerbread houses if they misbehave.”

I frowned at this. “But won’t it be too late once they’ve already misbehaved?”

“That’s what all the security is for.”

“Security’s made to be broken.”

“We break them first.”

“And if I go on a walk, nothing’s going to bother me? We’re going to have words if something tries to eat me.”

Steve raised a hand. “I solemnly swear you won’t be eaten; but if you’re really that afraid, I can give you some hot sauce or syrup of ipecac to cover yourself with.”

This did nothing for my frown. “Oh ha ha.”

Steve favored me like a parent humoring a tiresome child. “Would you like me to walk with you?”

I closed my mouth and actually considered it for a moment. “I’ve got it,” I finally said. I didn’t want anyone else spoiling my perfectly rotten mood.

“The walking path makes a three mile loop around the back part of the estate,” Steve said. His tone was reassuring. Maybe it would be okay to walk the trail. “You’ll find emergency phones every quarter of a mile. Every half-mile, you’ll find little shelters equipped with toilets and water fountains.”

I didn’t think I’d be having that kind of emergency, but after seeing some of the things I had already run up against, I couldn’t rule out a sudden bladder malfunction. “Good to know,” I said.

“You get in trouble, just look for the blue lights on top of the emergency phone stations. You won’t be able to miss them.”

“How long’s it take for help to arrive?”

“No time at all, Jack.”

“You sure?” I wanted to avoid any trouble tonight. I had already exceeded my lifetime quota.

Steve looked at me, and his eyes crinkled as he grinned. “We’re always around,” he said. As he spoke, his body slowly grew indistinct and transparent. “You just call if you need us.” The last two words came out of thin air as Steve’s body faded away altogether.

Son of a bitch.

The guy was a ghost.

Trouble, it turned out, waited about forty-five minutes to find me. It gave me until I got halfway down the first leg of the trail. I moved quickly among the shadows cast by the principality’s two scowling moons. They leered at me high overhead with mirthless grins. I shuddered, because I didn’t want to know the punch line of their jokes. Sometimes inside humor is best left inside, right?

Dark stripes crisscrossed the trail like prison bars where the late autumn branches, leafless and bare as skeletons, interrupted the boney light of the nighttime sky. The woods on both sides of the trail held the darkness stingily. Thin saplings grew in clumps with the pale color of naked bodies stacked together in the closet of a serial killer’s darkest dreams. Darkness choked the empty spaces between.

I pulled my coat around me against the cold air. My screamer rested snuggly in its holster beneath the crook of my left arm. My nerves were on fire. My head spun. I realized that my mind and my body were still trying to catch up with the trauma of waking up in this dystopian nightmarescape. Angie’s sudden turn in personality still singed the burnt ends of my heart, highlighting the fact that I wasn’t coping too well with anything happening to me. Once again, I shoved these troubled thoughts out of my mind. I forced myself to focus on the wonderful medley of autumn scents peppering the air.

Around me trees rustled in the gentle coastal breeze. Small branches popped occasionally. Small animals moved among the brush here and there. Everywhere, the forest gave itself up in little noises and disturbances sounding in the dark.

I moved the fingers of my right hand lightly across the screamer’s grip. This simple motion brought me some comfort. Little by little my angsty nerves unknotted.

These were just nighttime forest sounds.

Besides, Steve seemed like a decent enough ghost, and hadn’t the poltergeists at Walmart done their best to protect me? I knew that if I was going to be here for a while I was going to have to adapt to life in the Playground. Hundreds of thousands—maybe millions—of people apparently lived here without these constant fears.

Another twig snapped in the gloom. My eye twitched involuntarily. I would have felt better if Ange had been there with me. But I was alone. My hand grasped the screamer so firmly its rough surface dug into my skin. I breathed out after holding my breath for a moment, willing the stress away.

It helped a little.

Besides, in one of my pockets rested a bottle of mild sedatives.

They helped a lot.

Maybe even better than knowing I had a high-powered energy pistol beneath my coat. So I tried to loosen up a bit more while conscious part of my mind wandered among the mildewed furniture stacked in my brain. Why had I allowed myself to develop feelings for someone as confused as Ange? I certainly seemed to be paying for it now. Was the fact that I felt some kind of bond with her fate’s idea of cosmic joke?

Another twig snapped in the night. The crack made me stop. This time it was loud. Really sharp.

SNAP!

I twisted to my right so rapidly I felt dizzy. The woods pressed their dark face at me. Something out of sight shuffled amid thick leaves. “Hello!” I called out, working hard to keep my voice pleasant and amiable. I told myself maybe it was a troop of doxies that lived on premises deeper within the forest.

Whoever was shadowing me continued moving in my direction. A branch swished as someone moved through the tree boughs. I heard them bending forward and swishing back together. Whoever—whatever—it was must have been as big as a man or woman. Doxies were too small to be knocking limbs about like that.

“Hi there,” I called out again. “I hear you moving in the trees.” My voice trembled slightly. I hoped it went unnoticed. I stood in a slanting shaft of moonbeams. My breath ghosted away from my face.

“Hello?” I said again.

This got no reply. I felt the hackles rise on the back of my neck, and I backed away. My eyes darted around for any sign of the blue lights shining from the emergency stations dotting the walking path. None were close.

Damn it, Angie.

God only knew what was in these woods.

The footsteps finally stopped. My visitor stood as still as the shadows falling across my body. I stood and waited. It stood and waited. The alarmed part of my imagination—which accounted for all of it—had already decided that I was facing a something, not someone. When the thing in the woods took several more steps in the dry leaves, I made out the contours of a humanoid shape, but my observer was either darkly dressed or as black as the stygian pitch of hell itself.

I couldn’t see any details.

“You can come out and talk!” I barked. “Really!” This last word made me grimace. It sounded too much like a plea.

I moved back, and I finally caught a glimpse of the thing watching me. I saw right away that its outline differed from a human’s. The thing held a hunter’s crouch. Cold fear suddenly wheedled through my guts and worked its way into the rest of my body. When the creature’s head bent forward far enough to catch the moonlight, its eyes flared to life, and they shone with an animal’s golden reflection. The irises narrowed onto slits. I withdrew my weapon and held it up for the thing to see.

“I’m armed,” I growled. I knew I couldn’t let any more weakness slip into my voice. Predators liked that kind of thing. And the dark shape looked all too ready to spring.

After an uncomfortably long wait, a rough voice rasped from the shadows. “You should not be here. Something will eat you.” Within those words I heard a deeply inhuman chuckling.

“I don’t think I’d taste too good.” I didn’t either. I heard fear made meat taste gamey.

More chuckling issued from the darkness. “You are in my way, human.”

Damn it. Steve said I would be safe. I should have known better. It wasn’t like I had chosen to take a walk in a well-lit neighborhood or anything.

I moved the muzzle of my gun around, allowing it to drift in the thing’s general direction. I swallowed stiffly. “Right. Your area. Got it. I’m leaving. Just keep to where you are and I’ll be on my way.”

The dark creature’s pupils narrowed into thin, metallic slits. I heard the crepitus of claws biting into wood. “Run.” Its command rippled with fury. “Run, now.”

 

 

 

 

 

To Be Continued in J. David Phillips’s

The Things That Stalked Me.

 


A Demon Lady With Love

When someone orders a supernatural hit on Jack Pittman, he is suddenly thrust into a dystopian nightmare world populated by B grade monster movie characters where nothing is ever as it seems. Jack teams up with an unlikely set of superheroes, including a fangless vampire forced to wear dentures, a werewolf that only turns into a schnauzer, and a confused succubus that can't seduce men. If he wants to survive, Jack must answer a series of crucial questions: How can he keep his friends safe? Who wants him dead? And why is a demon and his infernal Homeowners Association after him?

  • ISBN: 9781370827466
  • Author: J. David Phillips
  • Published: 2017-05-31 04:20:18
  • Words: 43874
A Demon Lady With Love A Demon Lady With Love