Apr 23 2012 1:00pm
An excerpt from Evil Dark, a paranormal hard-boiled police procedural by Justin Gustainis (available April 24, 2012).
“My name’s Markowski. I carry a badge. Also, a crucifix, some wooden stakes, a big vial of holy water, and a 9mm Beretta loaded with silver bullets...”
A series of seemingly motiveless murders of supernatural creatures points to a vigilante targeting the supe [supernatural] community. Markowski wouldn’t normally have much of a problem with that, but his daughter may be next on the killer’s list...
The city is Scranton. The name is Markowski. I carry a badge. The monsters from your nightmares are real, all of them. If you live in my town, protecting you from them—and vice versa—is my job.
That’s pretty much all you need to know about who I am and what I do.
There are a few things in this life that I really hate, and two of them are fairies and heights.
Fairies piss me off because they act so goddamn superior. Just because they can fly, and they’re all so fucking beautiful—males and females, both—and they can shift at will from Earth to Fairyland and back again, it makes them all think they’re hot shit. The default setting on the average fairy’s face is a smirk, and in more than one case I’ve been tempted to wipe it off —with my fist.
As for heights—I need to explain something about that. It’s not altitude all by itself that scares me—it’s only something that I might fall from and get killed that gives me the willies.
A few years back, I was in New York for a supe cop conference, and I used my free time to do some touristy stuff. So after the boat tour around the Statue of Liberty, I went to the Empire State Building and took the elevator up to the observation deck on floor one-oh-two. You get a great view of the city, and I thought it was spectacular. Of course, the deck has a waist-high wall around it, and that’s topped by a large gauge metal fence, and there’s barbed wire on top of that—if you want to fall off that thing, you’re gonna have to work at it. I wasn’t nervous at all.
On the other hand, if you put me in one of those flimsy platforms the window washers use when they clean the building, I’d probably shit myself. I don’t care if those guys think it’s safe and do it every fucking day—I want something more between me and oblivion than a big plank of wood, some scaffolding, and a couple of cables. I haven’t got agrophobia, or whatever they call it—I’m just not interested in doing any experiments with the force of gravity from half a mile in the air.
So, with all that, how is it I found myself on a two-foot-wide ledge that fronts the Bank Tower Building, twelve stories up from street level, trying to talk a fairy out of taking the Big Dive?
The answer to that is kinda complicated.
What happened was all my fault, too—well, most of it. Sooner or later, the lesson is going to sink into my thick Polack skull: never leave early for work. Every time I do, something happens—and it’s never the kind of stuff that makes me smile when I think about it later.
When I said I left early, I don’t mean that I was going over to the station house and start my shift ahead of schedule. I work long enough hours as it is. It’s just that I was tired of my own cooking and thought it would make a nice change to have a decent meal before going off to do battle with the Forces of Darkness for another night. So I left a note for my daughter Christine, who doesn’t get up until sundown, and headed off for Luigi’s, my favorite Italian restaurant. I would have invited Christine to come along, but she’s kind of on a restricted diet.
They say that Luigi—known as “Large Luigi” to his pals, and with reason—used to be a button man for the Gambino family in New York, twenty years or so back. But he’s a law-abiding citizen now, and I don’t care how many guidos he popped back in the old days. All I know is, he makes one hell of a veal scallopini. You might say it’s to die for.
I don’t really like eating out alone. There was a time when I’d arrange to meet my partner for a pre-shift meal once in a while. Paul DiNapoli and I used to eat together at least once a week. After Big Paul died, my new partner, Karl Renfer, would sometimes have dinner with me. But in recent months, Karl’s food preferences have changed, and he’s not much interested in eating anything that doesn’t have a letter in it—like O, A, or AB positive.
The most direct route to Luigi’s from my place is through downtown. I figured the rush hour traffic had slacked off by then, so it was probably fastest to take the direct route. Other times of the day, I’m better off sticking to the side streets—it’s longer that way, but faster.
So, driving through downtown, I noticed a bunch of red and blue lights flashing on South Wyoming Avenue. At first, I thought it might be a fire, but then I saw the half-dozen black-and-white units parked in front of the Bank Towers, the tallest building in town—it’s only fourteen stories, but this is Scranton, for Chrissake, not midtown Manhattan.
I hadn’t heard the call that brought these cars here, because my police radio was turned off. I was off duty—it’s allowed. And since I’d turned the radio off, it stands to reason that I should’ve just driven past the site of whatever shit was happening, and stay on course for Luigi’s and the veal scallopini.
But curiosity, which has been known to be bad for felines, is often the downfall of cops, too. Little did I know that my own downfall was literally only a few minutes away.
I parked as close as I could get to the action, put my ID folder in my jacket pocket so that the badge was visible, and walked toward the yellow tape that was designed to separate the official personnel from the gawkers.
There was a uniformed officer standing just inside the crime scene tape, but his back was to me and his head craned upward, as if he was looking at the sky. I said, “Excuse me, Officer.”
He turned around, already saying, “Listen, mister, you might as well—oh, hi, Sarge. Sorry.” His name was Dietrich, but he looked about as Aryan as Michael Jordan. Short—just made the height limit, I bet—greasy black hair and pockmarked skin. But he wasn’t a bad cop—if he was, I’d have known.
“What’s going on?” I asked him.
“Aw, we got a jumper,” he said. “Twelfth floor, on the ledge. See him?”
Now that I knew where to look, it wasn’t hard to spot the solitary figure, his arms pressed flat against the concrete wall as if he was crucified there. He was at least two hundred feet away, and my eyes aren’t what they used to be, but there was something...
A few dozen civilians were milling around, waiting for something exciting to happen. If the guy jumped, they’d probably be overjoyed—give them something different to talk about at dinner tonight. One of the gawkers had a set of opera glasses, of all things. He was looking at the solitary figure twelve stories up as if it was the second act of the fucking Barber of Seville. I stepped over to him and said, “Mind if I take a quick peek through those?”
Without looking away from the subject of his interest, he said, “Yeah, I mind. Fuck off.”
I said, a little louder than before, “Would you prefer to rephrase that, or just spend a night in jail getting assfucked by a couple of guys named Bubba and Leroy?”
That brought the glasses down, all right. He turned to me, and I saw his eyes go from my face to the badge and back again. “Sorry, Officer. I didn’t know... here.” He handed me the glasses.
I looked through the lenses and tried to orient myself. After a moment, I was able to locate the figure on the ledge and get my first good look at him. I looked for maybe fifteen seconds, muttered, “Aw, shit,” then handed the opera glasses back to the douche bag they belonged to. I probably couldn’t have got him a night in jail just for being a douche bag—fortunately, he didn’t know that.
I went back to Dietrich. “Who’s ranking officer on Scene?”
“That’d be Sergeant Noonan.”
“You know where he is now?”
“Yeah, Sarge.” Dietrich pointed. “He’s just the other side of that squad car over there, I think.”
“You mind letting me through? I wanna have a word with him.”
“Sure, no prob.”
Dietrich lifted up the crime scene tape and I ducked under it and headed in the direction he’d pointed to.
He was right. A few feet beyond the parked squad car, Sergeant Ron Noonan was on his police radio, not sounding too happy.
“No, sir, we can’t get near him. None of my men is real anxious to go out on that ledge, and I can’t order them to. Once the fire department gets here, it might be different, but now… Yes, sir. I will, sir. As soon as possible, sir. Noonan out.”
He was replacing the radio on his belt when he noticed me. “Markowski,” he said, with a careful nod. “What are you doing here? Nobody called for Occult Crimes that I know of.”
“They didn’t,” I said. “I was driving by, and couldn’t mind my own damn business. I’m not trying to get in your hair, Noonan, but there’s something you ought to know, if you don’t already.
“Your jumper—he’s a fairy.”
He stared at me. “A fairy? But those faggoty things got wings, don’t they? They can fly like a bird, supposedly. What’s he doin’ up there—fucking with us for laughs?”
“No—it looks like his wings have been amputated.”
“How the hell do you know that?”
“I borrowed some glasses from one of the rubberneckers. Got a good look at him. He won’t be doing any flying until the wings grow back—assuming he lives that long.”
“A fairy.” Noonan shook his head. “Well, fuck me.”
“Listen, Noonan—is the fire department coming?”
“Yeah, I had Chief Mertz on the horn a few minutes ago. They’re sending a truck.”
“With the usual equipment for this kind of thing?”
“Yeah, far as I know. What’s it to you?”
I took in a deliberate breath and let it out, cursing myself for getting involved in other people’s problems, especially when the one with the real problem didn’t even qualify as people.
“Once the SFD gets here, I’ll have a word with them,” I said. “Then I’d like to go up there and see if I can talk to him.”
“You know the guy—or the fey, or whatever the fuck you call them?”
“I don’t think so, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve had some experience with fairies. Look, if you want me to butt out, I will. But I think I can get him down from there alive.”
Noonan looked over my shoulder. “Fire truck’s here.” He returned his gaze to my face. “What the fuck, Markowski. You know these damn fairies better than I do—which in my case, is not at all. You think you can get the flitty bastard down, then go for it.”
I nodded. “Let me talk to whoever’s commanding the truck, then I’ll go on up.”
About ten minutes later, I was leaning half out the twelfth-floor window that was closest to the suicidal fairy. The people in the law firm that owned the window weren’t too happy about it, but I waved my badge at them and they’d let me though. I wondered if the jumper was one of their clients, who’d just got a look at his bill for legal services.
Speaking loudly enough to be heard on the ledge, I said to the fairy, “Hey, how ya doing?”
He didn’t start when I spoke to him, fortunately—he’d probably heard me opening the window. He turned his head slightly in my direction and I could see that his eyes were shut tight—good.
“If you have to ask that question of me in the present circumstances, then you are too stupid to comprehend any answer that I might give.”
I’d just been told to “fuck off” in Fairy. Yeah, they talk like that—most of them. I learned a new word from Reader’s Digest a couple of months ago that I’d immediately thought applied perfectly to fairies—supercilious. This specimen of the fair folk was no exception.
“Just a figure of speech,” I said. “I am well aware of your predicament.”
“Oh, are you?” Yup—supercilious is the word, all right.
“Well, the part that is visible to the eye,” I said. “I’m sure there must be other matters I don’t know about that have driven you to this… extreme situation.”
Now he had me talking that way—jeez.
“Other matters, indeed. And I warn you—do not try to force me, or persuade me, off my current perch. I am not going back inside. For me, the only way out is down, and I shall take it as soon as I can gather my courage sufficiently.”
“Of course—I respect that. My name’s Stan, by the way.”
He sighed dramatically, then said something in Fairy, followed by, “The closest name to mine in your language is… Butch.”
Butch. I felt the smile forming on my lips, but beat it back with an effort of will. He might open his eyes and see me.
“Uh, Butch, I couldn’t help but notice that your wings have been, um…”
“Amputated. Removed. Hacked off. Is that what you are trying to say?”
“Something like that. If you don’t mind me asking, does that have something to do with your present… predicament?”
“It has everything to do with it,” he moaned.
“I see,” I said. “Or rather, I don’t…”
“The matter is none of your concern, human. Go away and leave me in peace. I will seek true, lasting peace soon enough.”
“Don’t you want the other fey to know why you did it? Wouldn’t you rather give your last act some meaning, so that others will understand what drove you to this?”
He was quiet for several seconds before answering me.
“I loved—love—a female of my kind who is a member of Queen Mab’s court. Though I am but a common fey, she returned my love. She gave me the gift of her body—not once, but many times. We thought no one would ever find out.” The way he said that last part was bitter enough to curdle milk.
“I take it someone did find out.”
“Oh, yes—one of noble blood who also desired her but had been spurned—spurned for me. He wasted no time in bringing my crime to the attention of the Queen.”
“Messing around with a member of the Court is illegal, huh?”
“It is considered an insult to the Queen herself—which makes it the most heinous of all crimes. My punishment—well, that you see before you.”
“Forgive a dumb question, but your wings will grow back, won’t they?”
“Yes, in a year—perhaps two. But the shame is eternal—that, and the loss forever of the one I love.”
Sounded like fairies were as fucked up as humans—just with fancier vocabulary.
Now comes the hard part.
My back to the window, I went ahead and put my butt on the sill and slowly pivoted my legs, until my feet were on the ledge. Then I carefully eased my head and shoulders through. That done, I gripped the window frame tight with one hand and slowly raised up to a standing position, my knees screaming the whole time. But finally I’d done it—I was standing on the ledge, maybe ten feet from the fucking fairy drama queen who had caused all this.
As happens every time I’m in the process of doing something stupid, I started hearing from my gut.
Uh-uh, Stan. Bad idea. You know how far up we are? Get us the fuck out of here before it’s too late!
Then my brain decided to join the conversation.
Now for the real hard part.
Two feet wide, that ledge was—give or take an inch. People say “Everything’s relative,” and that sure is true. Two feet would be pretty impressive if it was, say the length of my dick. But right now that ledge I was on seemed about as slim as my chances for sainthood.
The fey opened his eyes for a second, saw what I was doing, then clenched them shut again.
Good. Keep the baby blues closed tight, pal. Don’t look at me, and especially don’t look down. In fact, I think I’ll take that advice myself.
“What do you think you’re doing, you fool?” he snapped. “If you try to manhandle me back inside, I will simply jump, and take you with me.”
Oh, would you? If only…
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I lied. “But I really want to understand your pain, your desperation, and I feel that I can only do that if I share this with you.”
God, I’m so full of shit, I’m surprised it isn’t coming out my ears.
Arms spread wide, palms flat against the concrete wall, I started edging toward him.
“But why should you care?” he said.
“Maybe I once fell in love with the wrong woman,” I said. “And maybe, just maybe, I lost her forever. We may be more alike than you think, Butch.”
“You have rare understanding, for a human,” he said.
Another foot. Another. Almost there.
“I understand more than you know,” I told him.
Mistake. He realizes my voice sounds too close. He opens those big blue eyes that they all have, stares at me in disbelief.
“You idiot! What are you—”
No point in stealth now. I shuffled toward him a couple more feet, then grabbed his wrist where it was pressed against the wall behind us. Butch gave something like a gasp.
Then, after a quick mental prayer, I step forward into nothing—taking the screaming, flailing fairy right along with me, all the way down.
I never did get to Luigi’s, but, on the plus side, I arrived for work ten minutes early. Who says clouds don’t have silver linings?
My partner was even earlier than me, for a change. Karl was absorbed in something on his computer monitor, but when I came in he glanced up, then did a double-take.
“Jesus, Stan, what the fuck happened to you?”
“Went flying with a fairy,” I said. “Trouble is, neither one of us had wings.”
He looked at me for a couple of seconds. “OK, you don’t get to dangle something like that in front of me without providing the details. So, spill.”
“Yeah, all right. I’ll tell you as much of it as I can until McGuire sends us out on a call.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Karl said. “You haven’t heard yet.”
“Start of our regular shift is gonna be delayed for an hour or so. A couple of Feebies are in town, and they’re putting on some kind of dog-and-pony show for us. McGuire says the detectives on every shift have to sit through it.”
“Oh, great. That means the FBI wants something from us.”
“It always does,” Karl said. “One of them’s kinda hot, though—in a hard-ass sort of way.”
“I hope you’re talking about a woman here,” I said. “Not that there’s anything wrong, you know, if you’re thinking about changing teams.”
“Hey, you’re the one who was goin’ on about flying with the fairies. Now, let’s hear it.”
“All right,” I said. “I left the house early tonight, with the idea of having a leisurely dinner at Luigi’s…”
We weren’t interrupted by Lieutenant McGuire or anybody else, for a change, so I was able to tell him the whole thing.
“Holy shit,” Karl said, about eight minutes later. “You just grabbed him and jumped?”
“Sure. I knew the fire department was going to set up some of those big, semi-inflated air bags they use at fires, in case somebody falls from a ladder. I saw them do it once for a jumper, too—about three years ago. I made sure they did it this time, too.”
“So, how’d you get all banged up?”
“Aw, I hit the fucking bag face-first. I don’t do this kinda thing every day, you know. The impact got my nose bleeding, although it’s not broken, they tell me. And they make those air bags out of pretty rough fabric—that’s where the facial abrasions came from. It’ll all heal in a few days.”
Karl shook his head. “What I don’t get is why you even bothered, man. I mean, if the dude, uh, fairy’s choices are either jump into an air bag or go back inside, he’ll make up his mind by himself sooner or later. Either way, no harm.”
“I’m not so sure,” I said. “If he was determined to off himself, he could’ve found a section of asphalt the air bags didn’t protect. They don’t have enough to cover the whole front of the building, you know. That’s why I was glad he kept his eyes closed—he didn’t see the air bags deployed down below until we were on our way down. And, besides…” I shrugged.
“I hate to see city resources tied up for hours over bullshit like that. That fire truck and those black-and-whites had more important things to do than wait for Butch to make up his fucking mind. It offended my sense of… I dunno, efficiency, I guess.”
“My partner thinks he’s Batman,” Karl said in mock despair. “And I thought I was the vampire on this team.”
“You are, and besides–”
That was when McGuire came out of his office and yelled, “All right, everybody head to the media room. Let’s go, people.”
There was a general shuffling of chairs and feet as detectives got up, most of them grumbling a little.
“Time for the dog-and-pony show,” Karl said.
I walked with him to the door. “Didn’t you tell me that you saw one of those once, in Tijuana—a dog-and-pony show?”
“Nah, that was a donkey and a midget. A couple of chicks were involved, too, although it turned out one of them was a dude.”
“Hope this exhibition’s gonna be better than that,” I said.
“It could hardly be worse.”
How wrong we were. How fucking wrong we were.
We sat in darkness for maybe half a minute. If we were watching old-tech VHS, I would have figured it was just leader tape we were looking at. But this was a DVD, which doesn’t need blank space at the beginning. I guessed the darkness was part of the program—a way to build suspense, maybe. If so, it was working.
Some people like total darkness—they say they find it restful. Me, I slept with a night light on when I was a kid, and I still do. Complete darkness freaks me out. I read once where Freud is supposed to have said that fear of the dark is subconscious fear of death, which the dark symbolizes. Of course, a lot of people think Freud was full of shit.
Personally, I think it goes back to prehistoric times, before man figured out how to make fire. The blackness between sundown and sunrise must’ve been an uneasy time for Joe Caveman, especially when there was no moon. Most predators see better at night than people do. In the dark, a man can’t tell what’s creeping up on him with dinner on its mind—until it’s too late.
Some things never change, I guess.
Suddenly, a light illuminated the video screen—bright and sudden, like you find on a film set. You know how it goes—some guy yells “Lights!” and, boom, the sun comes out. What I was looking at on the screen didn’t exactly fill me with eager anticipation, however.
The red circle, which was maybe ten feet across, looked like it had been carefully painted on the concrete floor. The five-pointed star inside it had also been done with care, probably by someone who understood the consequences of getting it wrong. It was easy to see the detail under those bright lights.
Inside the circle squatted two heavy wooden chairs. One of them was stained and splattered along its legs and side with a brown substance. When it was fresh, the brown stuff might have been red—blood red.
A man sat in each chair. There was nothing remarkable about them – apart from the fact that they were both naked and bound firmly to the chairs with manacles at hands and feet.
Not far from the chairs stood a cheap-looking table, its wood scarred and pitted. Someone had laid out a number of instruments there, including a small hammer, a corkscrew, a pair of needle-nose pliers, a blowtorch, and several different sizes of knives.
A man’s voice could be heard chanting, in a language that had been old when Christianity was young. This had been going on for several minutes. The men in the chairs sometimes looked outside the circle in the direction of the chanting, other times at each other. The one with dark hair looked confused. The other man was blond and clearly the more intelligent of the two, because he looked terrified.
Then came the moment when the air in the middle of the pentagram seemed to shiver and ripple. The ripple grew, but never crossed the boundary of the circle. After a while, some thin white smoke began to issue from that shimmering column. Over the next minute, the color of the smoke went from white to gray, then from gray to black. The chanting continued throughout all of this.
The column of smoke gradually took the form of a Class Two demon. I blinked. Class Twos are hard to summon, being near the top of the demon hierarchy. The wizard these people were using must’ve been pretty good.
I’d encountered a Class Four last year that Karl had saved me from, and those things are so dumb they don’t even have language – they’re all appetite. Class Twos are different. They manifest an appearance that’s almost human-looking, and they speak every language known to humankind, as well as their own tongue, developed over the millennia spent together in Hell.
The demon looked in the direction the chanting had come from and spoke angrily in Demon, demanding to know who had dared to summon him.
The voice from off-screen came back, firm and fearless. I listened for a bit, then whispered to Karl, “The wizard’s threatening to lay a whole bunch of hurt on the demon if he doesn’t obey the wizard’s commands.”
Karl looked at me. “How the fuck do you know that?” he said softly.
“I speak Demon. Sort of.”
I’d studied their bastard language off and on for over ten years, and was still a long way from fluent. But I figured understanding it might save my life one day—or, more important, my soul.
The demon gave a piercing scream and doubled over. The wizard must have zapped him pretty good.
When the hellspawn spoke again, it was more conciliatory—for a demon, that is. Then it bowed its head in acquiescence. The wizard had better hope the demon never got out of that circle, or he was going to be a long time dying—and death would only be the beginning.
“The demon agreed to cooperate, and the wizard just told him to possess one of those guys in the chairs,” I muttered so only Karl could hear.
The dark-haired man went suddenly rigid. He threw his head back as if in great pain, the muscles and tendons in his skin standing out all over his body. This lasted for several seconds. Then, all at once, the man seemed to relax. He looked around the room, and the circle, as if seeing them for the first time. His facial expression was one he hadn’t displayed before. It combined cunning and hatred in roughly equal proportions.
Then the wizard’s voice said a couple more words in Demon. He spoke sharply, as if giving a command, and that’s exactly what he was doing. I swallowed. Things were about to get very ugly, I figured.
The shackles holding the dark-haired man to the chair sprang open, as if by their own accord, and fell clattering to the floor.
The dark-haired man walked slowly to the table and surveyed the instruments that had been lined up like a macabre smorgasbord. He turned and looked at the blond man, a terrible smile growing on his thin face. Then the dark-haired man picked up from the table the pair of pliers and the blowtorch. After taking a moment to make sure that the blowtorch was working, he walked over to the chair where the blond man sat chained, naked, and speechless with terror.
What happened next went from zero to unspeakable in a very few seconds. Soon afterward, it went beyond unspeakable, to a level of horror that there are no words to describe.
Twelve very long minutes later, the blond man gave one last, agonized scream and escaped into death. We sat there and watched him die.
Then somebody must’ve pressed Stop, because the screen went mercifully dark. A few seconds later, the lights came on.
The nine people in the room sat in stunned silence, blinking in the sudden brightness. Then everybody started talking at once.
There had been eleven people in the room when the lights were turned off. But there’d been enough residual glow from the big monitor for me to see two tough, experienced police officers quietly leave over the last few minutes, one with a hand clasped tightly over his mouth.
I was glad nobody would know how close I came to being number three out the door.
My partner Karl leaned toward me and said softly, “Sweet Jesus Christ on a pogo stick. And people say vampires are inhuman.”
“Well, strictly speaking, you are,” I told him, just to be saying something.
“You know what I mean, Stan.”
“Yeah, I do. And I’m not arguing with you, either.”
The two FBI agents walked to the front of the room and stood waiting for us to quiet down. They’d been introduced to us earlier, before the horror show started. Linda Thorwald was the senior agent, and she’d done most of the talking so far. She was average height and slim build, with the ice-blue eyes I always associate with Scandinavia. Her hair was jet black, and I wondered if she was a blonde who’d had it dyed to increase her chances of being taken seriously in the macho culture of the FBI. People have done stranger things, and for worse reasons.
Her partner was a guy named Greer, who had big shoulders, brown hair, and a wide mustache that probably had J. Edgar Hoover spinning in his grave. He moved like an athlete, and I thought he might be one of the many former college jocks who find their way into law enforcement once it sinks in that they’re not quite good enough for the pros.
When the room was quiet, Thorwald said, “I regret that I had to subject all of you to that revolting exhibition of sadism and murder. If it’s any consolation, I’ve seen more than one veteran FBI agent lose his lunch either during or immediately after a showing of this… supernatural snuff film.”
Snuff films are an urban legend, probably started by the same kind of tight-ass public moralists who used to rant about comic books destroying the nation’s moral fiber. But the myth made its way into popular culture, and stayed there. There’s been plenty of counterfeit ones made over the years, with sleazeballs using special make-up effects to rip off the pervs who think torture and murder are fun. These days, you can see stuff like that at your local multiplex. It’s all fake, but I still wouldn’t want to know anybody who was a fan. If I’m going to hang out with ghouls, I prefer the real kind—they can’t help what they are.
There have been some serial killers who took video of their victims to jerk off over between kills, but that was for their own private use. If by “snuff film” you mean a commercially available product depicting actual murder, then there’s no such thing.
Or rather, there wasn’t. Until now.
“I wanted you all to see that video,” Thorwald said, “because it’s important that you understand what we’re up against, and what the stakes are. Copies of that DVD have surfaced within the last month in New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and, uh–” She turned to her partner.
“Baltimore,” he said.
“—and Baltimore,” she went on. “But the Bureau has been interested in this case for longer than a month. Quite a bit longer.”
Thorwald took a step forward. “You know that expression, ‘I’ve got good news and bad news’? Well, I’m afraid I don’t have any good news to offer you today. Instead, I bring bad news, and worse news. Brian?”
I could almost see the two of them rehearsing this act in their hotel room last night. The whole thing had a stagy quality that was getting on my nerves. Of course, after what I’d just witnessed, my nerves were pretty damn edgy already.
“The bad news,” Greer said, “Is that what you just saw isn’t the first video depicting this kind of torture-murder. I mean, one apparently carried out by a demon that’s been conjured and then allowed to ‘possess’ an innocent party.”
That must’ve been the dark-haired man we’d just seen. He hadn’t done all those awful things to the blond guy—the demon who’d taken him over had done it, using his body as an instrument.
“In fact, it’s the fourth one,” Greer said. “Same M.O. every time, with the same… gruesome result. All that varies is the technique, and the victim.”
The technique varied. I guess that’s why whoever was running the show had put out a selection of torture devices for the hellspawn to use. Nothing like variety.
Thorwald took over again. “The going price for one of these videos in the illicit-smut underground is one thousand dollars. To give you some perspective, you can buy one of a four year-old girl being raped for about three hundred.” A look of disgust passed over her face, the first genuine expression I’d seen there. “Presumably, each one of the DVDs has sold well enough to keep those producing them in business. The economies of scale are pretty good, from their perspective. Once you’ve recorded the master, you can burn copies for less than a buck apiece. There’s no way to know how many have been put into circulation. And no reason to think these people are going to stop doing it. That, as I said, is the bad news. But, as far as you officers are concerned, there is worse news.” She paused for effect, and I wondered if she’d learned that at the FBI Academy, or in some college speech class. Maybe she’d been on the debate team—she was the type.
“We have been unable to establish the location where these atrocities were made,” Thorwald said. “As with the one you just saw, what’s visible onscreen doesn’t give us much to go on. However, based on new information, we now have reason to believe that at least one of these DVDs was shot right here in Scranton.”
Then she stood there, looking at us. I don’t know what kind of a reaction she expected. If she was looking for gasps of surprise, she was talking to the wrong crowd. Most of us hadn’t gasped since we found out the awful truth about Santa Claus.
Finally, Carmela Aquilina—one of the two female detectives on the Supe Squad—said, “If you’re waiting for someone to feed you the next line, then I’ll do it. What’s this ‘new information’?”
“One of the victims has been identified,” Thorwald said. “A Bureau agent, who viewed the videos, recognized his cousin, who lives—lived—in Scranton. The cousin’s name was Edward Hudzinski.”
I noticed that a couple of the detectives threw quick glances my way, as if expecting a reaction. There’s lots of Polacks living in the Scranton area, and we don’t all know each other. We don’t all hang out together, either, and some of us can’t even dance the fucking polka—at least, I sure as hell can’t. Hudzinski’s name meant nothing to me. But I pitied the poor bastard, whoever he was, if he had died like the guy we’d just watched on video.
I guess Greer figured it was his turn again. “Needless to say, we didn’t take the ID on faith. Instead, we queried our Scranton field office about Mister Hudzinski. They checked with Scranton PD and found that he’d been reported missing last April. There were no suspicious circumstances about his disappearance, so it was treated as a routine missing persons case.”
“Are you saying that the Department should have handled it differently?” That was my boss, Lieutenant McGuire. His voice, while polite, had some snap to it. Although he’ll kick the ass of any cop under his command who fucks up, he doesn’t like criticism from outsiders—even outsiders with Federal badges.
“Not at all,” Greer said. “Based on the information available to you, I’d say the response was entirely appropriate. But now there’s this new information, so a different response seems indicated. And this unit seems the most suitable one to carry it out.”
“What is it you expect us to do?” a detective sitting down front asked.
“The answer to that should come from Lieutenant McGuire,” Thorwald said. “Agent Greer and I would not presume to tell you officers how to handle a case like this. Our work at Quantico’s Behavioral Science Unit involves tracking down serial killers—of the human variety. We’re not experienced in matters involving the… supernatural.” She managed to keep most of the distaste she felt out of her voice.
“We’ve requested temporary assignment to the Bureau’s Scranton field office,” Greer said. “We’ll be available for consultation, and we want to monitor the investigation closely—without getting in the way, of course.”
Of course. Until the time came to make an arrest. Then the Feebies would be right there, claiming jurisdiction as well as the newspaper headlines. Well, they could have their fucking headlines. I wanted the sick bastards who were behind this video operation. As long as they went down, I didn’t give a shit who put them there.
After Thorwald and Greer left to go clean their weapons, or whatever it is that Feebies do in their free time, McGuire gave us our assignments.
“Work your snitches, all of you,” he said. “If one of these murders was committed here, the odds are good that they all were. The perps have no reason that I can see to travel all over the place, just to grab victims who’re anonymous on the videos, anyway.”
“Why here, I wonder,” Karl said, loud enough for McGuire to hear.
“We’ll know that when we nail the bastards,” he said. “Maybe the wizard who’s doing the summoning is based here. God knows there’s no shortage of them in the Wyoming Valley.”
“They all do white magic only—supposedly.” That was Sefchik, Aquilina’s partner.
“And we’re all old enough to know what ‘supposedly’ is worth,” McGuire said. “Besides, even those that stay on the right-hand path might have heard something about one of their brethren who’s been walking on the wild side.”
“And it’s not just the wizard,” I said.
McGuire looked at me. “What do you mean?”
“There’s other people involved, too. Somebody is operating the camera while the wizard is conjuring—we saw it move while he was still chanting.”
Aquilina brushed hair out of her eyes and said, “He could’ve done it himself, using a remote to move and focus.”
“In theory, yeah,” I said. “But in practice, no way. Any wizard with experience—and it looks like this guy’s got plenty—knows better than to split his attention during a conjuration. The cost of fucking up is just too damned high.”
“So to speak,” Karl said. He’s always finding puns in my speech that I didn’t intend to put there.
“So there’s two of the fuckers, at least,” Pearce said. His nose has been broken so many times, he looks like a dumb pug. He’s neither one.
“Two, and probably more,” I said. “They’re snatching people without being seen, then disposing of the bodies afterward. Could be that the wizard doesn’t stoop to do that kind of work himself, so that means more guys are involved.”
“Good point,” McGuire said. “And let’s not forget the people on the retail end. Somebody’s got to make copies of each video, and somebody’s gotta sell them. You don’t buy this kind of shit at Vlad-Mart.”
“Not yet, anyway,” I muttered, just loud enough for Karl to hear me.
“All right, everybody, hit the street,” McGuire said, just as our PA, Louise the Tease, approached him with a sheet of paper. He read it, and his face got even tighter than usual.
“Renfer, Markowski,” he said, “Stick around a minute.”
Karl and I traded looks. It’s like when the principal tells you to stay after school—it’s never for anything good.
Once the other detectives were gone, McGuire said, “There’s been another witch burning.”
I felt my stomach drop like a runaway elevator. “Do they have an ID?”
“No, but if you’re worried about Rachel, she’s still in San Diego at that Wiccan conference. Not due back for a few more days.”
I felt better, but only a little. Rachel Proctor, the department’s consulting witch, wasn’t the only magic practitioner I knew, although she was the one I knew best.
“If they don’t know who she was, how do they know she was a witch?” Karl asked.
“Looks like the same M.O. as last time,” McGuire said.
Four nights earlier, a woman had been found tied to a telephone pole in Nay Aug Park—or what was left of her was found. She’d been burned beyond recognition. But the next day, a guy named Martin Allerdyce filed a missing persons report on his wife, Brenda, who was a practicing witch. She did white magic, of course—the black kind’s illegal.
Nobody thought it would serve any useful purpose to have Allerdyce attempt an identification of the charred thing found in the park. But he did provide two items, upon request: a brush containing a good quantity of his wife’s hair, and the name of her dentist.
Both dental records and DNA analysis confirmed Brenda Allerdyce as the victim. I wasn’t exactly surprised to hear that the funeral had been conducted with a closed coffin.
One of the fire marshals said that gasoline had been used as an accelerant, and Homer Jordan at the ME’s office told me that the level of free histamines in the tissues meant that Brenda Allerdyce had been alive when the fire was lit. She must’ve died screaming, an ugly fact that her husband was probably all too well aware of.
And now the sick fuck responsible had done it again.
“Where’s this one?” I asked McGuire.
He looked at me for a second before answering. “Lake Scranton,” he said, and his voice contained no inflection at all.
Next to me I heard Karl mutter, “Well, damn.”
Lake Scranton is a man-made reservoir just south-east of the city. A few months back, Karl and I, and some others, had spent a very long night in its pump house. Several people had died there, and the survivors would never be the same again. That was especially true of Karl, who’d started the night as a human and finished it well on his way to becoming a vampire.
“Tell me it’s not the pump house again,” I said.
“Not even close,” McGuire said. “The vic was found tied to one of the trees along the shoreline. Somebody whose house overlooks the lake saw the flames and called the fire department.”
“Are you sure you want us on this?” I asked. “The Feebies seem to expect us all to be out beating the bushes for whoever’s been making those snuff films.” I can take as much horror as anybody on the job. But after watching that video tonight, I wasn’t eager to look at a charred corpse, and to inhale that distinctive odor that smells so much like roast pork that I haven’t eaten any in fourteen years.
A couple of months ago, I’d spent one of my rare nights off having a few beers with Homer Jordan. He’d told me, as if I wanted to know, about some scientific paper he’d read that compared the pain involved in the various ways people die. The paper had concluded, Homer said, that burning to death was the hardest way there is to check out.
Me, I would have said that being tortured to death by somebody who enjoyed his work would have been a contender for the number one spot, but that’s kind of like debating which is the hottest corner of Hell, and those kind of arguments don’t interest me.
I suppose that the study Homer was talking about had made some kind of valuable contribution to medical research. But I wouldn’t want to be married to the guy, or woman, who wrote it.
“I don’t think the FBI expects us to abandon our regular case load just to help them with this thing,” McGuire said. “And if they do, then fuck ’em. Now get moving.”
We got moving.
As I drove out of the parking lot, Karl said, “Think it’s those fucking witchfinders again?”
“Well, it’s not Crane and Ferris, that’s for sure.” The last two witch-smellers to visit Scranton had died right here in this parking lot, their necks broken by a vampire named Vollman, and good riddance.
“I figure there’s more where those two clowns came from,” Karl said.
“I’m sure,” I said. “But they’re supposed to check in with the local police, whenever they come into a town—just like private eyes do.”
“Supposed to, huh?”
“Yeah, all right,” I said. “But what those bastards do is legal, unfortunately. If they’d burned a witch, they wouldn’t disappear—they’d call a fucking press conference.”
“Good point. So what do you figure—some lone psycho?”
“Let’s wait ’til we get there,” I said. “It’s a mistake to theorize in the absence of data.”
From the corner of my eye, I could see Karl turn to look at me. “You’ve been reading Sherlock Holmes again, Stan?”
“Why not?” I said. “If you can memorize all the James Bond books, I can at least read some Conan Doyle once in a while.”
“I don’t have ’em memorized,” he said. “I’m not some geek fanboy.”
“Sorry, my mistake,” I said—then asked him, “What’s the last line of From Transylvania with Love?”
Without hesitating, he quoted, “Bond pivoted, drove the wooden stake through Rosa Klebb’s heart, then slowly collapsed on the blood-red floor.” After a second’s pause, he said, “Hey—no fair. Everybody knows that one.”
“Everybody,” I said, nodding. “Yeah, you’re right. My bad.”
A few minutes later we reached the turnoff for Lake Scranton. It got quiet in the car as the flashing red and blue lights up ahead reminded us why we were here.
Copyright © 2012 by Justin Gustainis
Justin Gustainis currently lives in Plattsburgh, New York. He is a Professor of Communication at Plattsburgh State University, where he earned the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2002. His academic publications include the book American Rhetoric and the Vietnam War, published in 1993, and a number of scholarly articles that hardly anybody has ever read.