When I pull up to the bar, the truck kicking up dust and gravel behind me, I know it’s already too late to help anyone. Of the eight or nine cars in the parking lot, two of them are Texas State Troopers’, their roof racks still flashing.
The car I’m looking for, a ‘73 Cadillac Eldorado convertible I’ve been following since Miami, sits parked neatly in the dirt lot next to a couple of F-150s with gun racks and mud flaps decorated with chrome women.
I check to make sure I have my gear on me, making the sign of the cross as I touch each thing. Like that old joke: spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch.
Only this is a smudge of graveyard dirt on my forehead, my belt buckle (an intricate weave of braided iron to ward off the Evil Eye), a straight razor I stole from the man it’d been buried with, and yes, a watch. An Illinois Sangamo Special from 1919. Railroad grade. Keeps great time.
I hope I don’t have to use it.
Next comes the knapsack. I’ve looked inside fifteen times since I woke up this morning, but it pays to know where your shit is.
All the things the discerning necromancer could want: knucklebones, a noose from the neck of a hanged murderer, a pack of cards made up of aces and eights, and a pouch I hang from my belt full of powdered graveyard dirt, salt, ground bone, and blood dried under a full moon.
And a 9mm Browning Hi-Power made special for the Wehrmacht after the Nazis got hold of the factories and before the Belgians started sabotaging them. Thing’s got Waffen marks aplenty.
I’m not a big believer in evil, but this thing is just ugly. It’s a murderer’s gun, a sadist’s gun. Every kill is burned into it like the Third Reich stamps that cover its frame.
When a guy like me uses it, all that energy gives it a wallop that makes a .44 look like a popgun.
I don’t like shooting it. I don’t like touching it. Feels like cockroaches scurrying under my fingers.
But sometimes the best tool for the job is a tool that shouldn’t exist. It’s not as nasty as the watch, but it’ll do. I clip the holster on the inside of my waistband, hope I don’t blow my balls off.
The sun in West Texas is brutal, baking everything into a blur of burnt caramel. Why the fuck anyone would put a bar out in the middle of this limestone wasteland, I have no idea. Yucca, creosote, a scattering of agave and a wind-blasted Quonset hut are the only things to mar the endless landscape.
Charles Tyrone Washington is a real piece of work. Skipped out on a manslaughter charge in Detroit in the sixties and moved into a double-wide in Florida. Started up this bullshit Voodoo church where he bilked the locals and slept with their daughters.
Sweet deal if you can get it, I suppose. Helped that the guy’s the real deal. So, he talks to the dead, curses his enemies, divines the future. The whole shebang. Got some real muscle and he’s pissing it away on Evil Eyes and picking horses.
Eventually talking to Voodoo spirits paid off, and he pulled together enough dough in the nineties to pick up a burnt-out husk of an antebellum mansion in the middle of the Everglades. Six months later some of his followers came by and found his rotting corpse in the middle of a circle of salt and candle wax in the foyer.
And that’s when he really went to town.
“Hey, Chuck,” I say, looking at the carnage. “You’re getting creative.” I stand in the doorway looking over a grim tableau that would make Hieronymus Bosch blush.
It takes a lot to keep my cool and not throw up all over the place. I’ve seen death, but this is insane. The lucky ones died in their seats. Five, maybe six guys. Hard to tell in the tangle of body parts. He exploded their heads, leaving open stumps to dump a sea of blood onto the floor.
The others, particularly the Troopers, got the royal treatment. Pinned to the far wall with the blades of a ceiling fan, chests peeled back to show empty cavities, impaled on barstools, shredded by a thousand cuts from broken glass. One poor bastard is just a torso. Christ only knows what Washington did with the rest of him.
The worst one suffered an aborted transformation. Limbs stick out at odd angles, tufts of fur and chitin instead of skin. A dozen small mouths lie open, tongues lolling. The only recognizably human thing about him is his cowboy boots.
There are no ghosts around. This much devastation, you better believe somebody’d leave a ghost. Washington’s already eaten them.
He looks like a wiry, seventy-year-old black man in a Hawaiian shirt and khaki cargo pants. Round, thin-rimmed glasses perched on his nose. Typical Florida retiree. Plays some golf, maybe. Hangs out on his porch watching the Cuban chicas go by.
But that’s on this side. Over on the Twilight Side, that between world where the dead park their carcasses waiting for whatever comes next, he’s a burning, churning mass of faces. The Loa, those same Voodoo spirits who gave him enough keno numbers to keep him in booze and cigarettes, dance under his skin, glowing like hot coals. I’m not sure he’s even human anymore.
After Washington died, word started getting through the grapevine that he was doing some really nasty magic down there. It happens. Cheating death for a bit isn’t as hard as you’d think. He’d been screwing around with the Loa, feeding on ghosts he’d hunted down in nearby towns.
Nobody tried to stop him, of course. That’s not how wizards roll. The only interest anyone took was purely academic. We couldn’t give a rat’s ass as long as he doesn’t rain on our parade or draw too much attention from the normals.
Magic’s like Fight Club that way. You don’t talk about it. Can’t have the regular folk knowing this shit’s real. We might have to share.
“You are one tenacious motherfucker, Eric Carter,” Washington says. He tips back a Miller, takes a drag on his cigarette.
“It’s part of my charm,” I say.
On the other side, I see the faces in his skin flare up like gasoline dumped on a bonfire. Seeing the land of the dead overlaid onto our side has its uses, though it’s sometimes hard to see what’s real and what isn’t. But I’ve had years of practice. Mages are born with a knack. Illusions, transformations, divinations. Some people are just better at some things than others.
I got dead things. Yay me.
“I’ve been wanting to talk to you. I knew you’d come here,” Washington says. “Once I killed enough people I knew you’d sense it. Come straight for me.”
I’m good, but I’m not that good. I point a thumb over my shoulder. “Nah. Just lucky. Got a scanner in the car. Heard the cops roll out. I was about to head south. I figured you’d fucked off to Mexico by now.”
Washington had been in his swamp palace doing his thing for a while. Not really dead, not really alive. At some point, probably about a year or so ago, he took things a little further off the reservation. Instead of begging the Loa for favors, he started trapping them, experimenting with them, slicing them into snack size pieces. Stitching them together and wearing them on his soul like a psycho killer’s skin suit.
This has made some things very not happy. As a general rule of thumb, you don’t fuck with things that have big brothers and sisters. They might come after you. Or worse, they might send someone like me.
“You could just leave me be,” he says. “Drop this whole farce and let one of your own live his life in peace. One necromancer to another.”
I’m not a big fan of that word. Makes me think of towers on the moors and medieval skullcaps. Sure I bleed the occasional black ram under a full moon, but come on. It’s the 21st fucking century. Get with the program.
“Two things,” I say, ticking off points on my fingers. “One, you don’t have a life to live. I’m not sure you’re even human, anymore, not that I have a problem with that. Different strokes, you know. And two, this is kind of my job. I have a contract. Sorry.”
“Don’t say I didn’t give you a chance, boy,” he says.
“Yeah, ‘cause that worked out so well for you back in Florida.”
I’d hit him down at his mansion in the swamp. He’d been using that as a ritual and research space. Smart move. The place sat on top of a nexus of wild magic that bubbled up through the swamp like methane. Whoever built the place knew what they were doing. Gave his spells a lot more oomph.
I almost didn’t make it. Got lucky. While he was pounding the shit out of me and tossing me around the room, I saw a piece of one of the Loa hanging off him like a loose thread. That’s all I needed. I tossed a banishing spell at it, tore it loose and sent it home to mommy.
Like an unraveling sweater, it started pulling out the rest of the Loa. Washington’s hold on them wasn’t as strong as he’d thought. Scared the holy fuck out of him. He tossed me through a window and bugged out, salvaging what he could.
Took me three days to track him to Miami. Holed up in a four-star resort on Fisher Island. Thought surrounding himself with salt water would hide him. It did for a while. But like a lot of mages, he keeps thinking magic’s the only way to do anything.
I found him by grilling the local prostitutes until I found one he’d hired. Man spends a thousand bucks a night trying to hide from me and goes for a cheap hooker with a meth habit. Twenty bucks and a fake badge is all it took.
“Look,” I say. “We’ve been playing hide and seek now for the better part of a month. I know I’m sick of it. I figure you probably are, too.”
“You sound like you want to make a deal with me.”
“No, I just want to get this over with.” I draw the Browning, unload a couple of rounds at him, bolt for an overturned table. Even with damn near perfect shots, the bullets are just a, “Hey, how ya doin’?” If they make a dent in Washington’s defenses I’ll be surprised.
I hear a loud snap of splitting wood and the building shudders. A tremendous crack tears through the floor, ripping it in half. I jump aside, pop another round. That’s three. I don’t want to lose count.
Washington calls up a purple fireball and heaves it in my direction. He tried that crap in the swamp. I learned the hard way how to deal with it.
I pull a fistful of powder from the pouch on my belt and throw it between us, making a point of scattering as much as possible on the closest corpses.
The spell in the powder works a treat. It’ll do fuck all if he pulls out the good china, but this is just a warm-up. The fireball fizzles the second it passes over the line of scattered powder.
We could do this all day, but I’m really not in the mood. I haven’t had lunch yet, and the nearest tacos are twenty miles up the road.
I feint left, pop off a couple more rounds. Five. He levitates a table and throws it at me. I duck and it gets me closer to him. I don’t want to make this look too easy.
More gunfire. There’s a sense of wounded pride coming from the gun every time I purposely miss. Seven rounds total. It’s time to get this over with.
I dive under a thrown chair, smack right into Washington. Before I know it he’s got his hand around my throat.
He slams me hard against the wall. I’m beginning to think maybe this was a mistake, hope that the spell that I scattered onto the corpses is doing its job.
“You thought you could kill me with a gun?” Washington says. “You’re weak. And I’m gonna enjoy snackin’ on your soul.”
I make a croaking sound. It’s the best I can do under the circumstances.
“You got something to say, son?” I nod and he lets up his grip a little bit.
He freezes as he feels the barrel of the Browning press against the side of his skull.
I’ve been keeping my distance this last month because I couldn’t think of another way to take him out. I needed to be close enough to get the drop on him while he was distracted. And I needed help to pull it off. How nice of him to leave me some corpses lying around.
The headless body standing behind him pulls the trigger and bullet number eight—made of silver and gold and engraved with the symbols for all of the families of the Loa: Ghede, Rada, Kongo, Petro, Nago, blessed by Baron Samedi and Maman Brigitte themselves—blows his head off his shoulders.
His body falls to the floor, green flames erupting from the stump of his neck. The fire spreads quickly and I pull his hand from my throat to keep from being consumed with him. He’s dying for real this time.
A little shred of his soul stands on the twilight side looking at me, dumbfounded. Then panicked as the Loa tear loose from him, each shadowy figure ripping its way free.
Soon he’s nothing but a withered image, glowing dull as wind-blown coals, and then gone.