King of the Dead Sneak Peek

With the release of KING OF THE DEAD just around the corner, I thought it was high time I gave you a sneak peek at Jeremiah’s latest adventure.  So, without further ado, here is chapter one…

CHAPTER ONE
HUNT

       Life as an interstate fugitive isn’t easy.  It’s not being on the run itself that’s so difficult; mankind has been wandering from place to place since the dawn of human existence.  No, it’s the constant state of fear and anxiety that wears on you, little by little, bit by bit, until you’re ready to turn yourself in to make it all stop. 

     Being on the run turns you into a virtual prisoner; all that’s missing are the steel bars.  You can’t go out without worrying about being seen in public.  If you do go out, you end up having a terrible time because you’re constantly looking over your shoulder, wondering if you’ve been recognized.  Then, when you’ve finally buckled under the strain of it all and retreated to whatever hole-in-the-wall place you’re calling home that week, you spend the entire night waiting for that knock on the door, the one that heralds the arrival of the police who’ve come to drag your ass away to jail for the rest of your natural born life.  All that and I didn’t even mention the never-ending itch between your shoulder blades, that constant sense you’re being hunted, tracked, like a fox fleeing before the hounds.

     Fact is, life as a fugitive pretty much sucks.

     You’ll have to take my word for it when I tell you that it’s even tougher when you’re blind.

     I know.  Cry me a river, right?

     We, meaning Dmitri Alexandrov, Denise Clearwater and I, had been on the run for the last three months.  We’d left Boston in early September, just a half-step ahead of an FBI agent named Robertson.  Mr. FBI was convinced I was the serial killer known as the Reaper, a particularly vicious monster he’d been hunting for more than a decade.  He also thought I was responsible for the death of a homicide detective named Stanton.  To be honest, I did have to take some responsibility for Miles’ death; he wouldn’t have been following me and ended up getting himself killed if I hadn’t broken out of a holding cell at One Police Plaza. 

     Then again, if I hadn’t been illegally imprisoned and accused of multiple homicides that I couldn’t possibly have committed, I wouldn’t have had to break out of jail in the first place.

     Oh, what a tangled web we weave.

     It all started with the kidnapping of my daughter, Elizabeth, five years before.  I didn’t know it then, but she’d been snatched by the supernatural equivalent of the man with a thousand faces; a doppelganger, or fetch as they were sometimes called, that could take the form of any creature it came into contact with.  The fetch was the magically-created twin of a sorcerer named Eldredge, who had been locked away in a mystical prison somewhere around the time the American colonies won independence.  Eldredge eventually died, but he not before he used the power that bound him to become a shade upon his death.

      Shades are nasty business – incorporeal spirits imbued with the intelligence and power that they had in life, with no expiration date for their hatred or their craving for vengeance.  With the right ritual and no small measure of arcane energy, a shade can even regain its physical form, or, in the words of the Star Trek’s Spock, create life from lifelessness.  All Eldredge needed to do was track down and slaughter the last living relatives of those who had originally sealed him away in that mystical prison beneath the earth and he’d be home free.

     It had taken him more than a decade but he’d made good use of the time, sending his doppleganger crisscrossing the country, killing as it went.  By the time I’d entered the picture he was down to the final four or five. 

     If the doppelganger hadn’t kidnapped my daughter, he probably would have succeeded.

     Instead of completing the ritual and waltzing off into the sunset, he’d been forced to fight for his life and in the end, the three of us had cleaned his clock and put him down like the rabid dog he was.

     Before we had though, his pet fetch had disemboweled Stanton and nearly killed the three of us as well.

     We’d survived and had taken out Eldredge, something those sorcerers two centuries before hadn’t been able to do.  The fairytale ending I’d hoped for never materialized though.  I soon found out that while Elizabeth had been kidnapped by the fetch at Eldredge’s command, she died in an accident almost a year before.

     Sending her ghost on to the rest she deserved was one of the hardest things I’d ever done.

     And what did we get for all our trouble? 

     Three months of living as fugitives, with no end in sight.

     Which was why we were parked in an empty lot in the warehouse district at midnight, trying to buy a set of fake IDs from a gangbanger named Carlos.  He’d been recommended to us by the friend of a friend of someone Dmitri knew, which didn’t put him too high on the trustworthy list, but at least it gave us a place to start.  We needed those IDs.  With them, and the security of being able to do simple daily tasks, we could start to build some semblance of a life.  It wouldn’t be what we’d had before; there was no way we could ever go back to that but at least it would better than what we had now.

     Things had been going pretty well, too, until the punk in front of me stuck his gun in my face.

     I was standing next to the door of my car when he arrived in his low-riding Impala, the booming beat of a bass drum pumping out of his open windows.  I had to struggle to conceal my smirk as he got out of the car and sauntered over to me.  He’d killed his headlights before doing so and that had allowed me to give him the once over from behind my sunglasses without making it too obvious. 

     He was five seven, maybe five eight on a good day, which put him four inches shorter than me.  He was dressed in a pair of baggy pants that were belted on halfway down his ass, revealing the top of his boxer shorts, and a dark form-fitting long sleeved shirt, the kind the body builders wear.  The whitest sneakers I’d ever seen and a red bandanna tied around his left arm completed his get up.  He was trying too hard and it showed; he looked more like Hollywood’s idea of a chollo than the real thing.

     In the good ole days, before we had to run for the hills, Dmitri had owned and operated the best bar in all of Southie, which, when you think about it, was kind of unusual for a guy with the last name Alexandrov.  But he’d successfully defended his territory against more than one attempt by the Irish mob to hone in on it and it wasn’t until I’d known him for a few years that I’d discovered why.  Besides being a mean sonofabitch, Dmitri had been one of the best fixers in the business.  Information and equipment were his stock in trade; if you needed something, anything at all, you went to Dmitri.

     It was his safe house that we’d been staying in for the last several weeks and when it came time to establish a new set of identities for each of us, it was his expertise that allowed us to set up this meet.

     Something went wrong, however.  We were expecting a professional and ended up with the farm team instead.

     This punk with the gun.

     The acrid smell of gunpowder filled my nostrils, letting me know the weapon had been fired recently.

     That wasn’t a good sign, either.  So far, our negotiations were off to a bad start.

     I put my hands up without being asked and said in a soft, nonthreatening tone, “Easy, man.  No need for that.”

     Carlos must have thought he was now the big man on campus for he turned his wrist so that the weapon was practically upside down and waggled it back and forth in front of my face.  “Shut up and give me the money,” he said with a sneer.

     Nobody with an ounce of brains would fire a gun from that position and expect to hit anything with any degree of accuracy, so I could tell he was more bark than bite.  If I could stall him for just a bit longer, I knew we could turn the tables on him, so I played the clueless white guy, full of indignation and completely out of his element. 

     “But we had a deal,” I whined.  “Two sets of IDs for ten grand.”

     Carlos grinned so wide that I could see the gold teeth in his mouth.

     “I’m changing the deal, shithead.  Give me the money before I put a cap in your ass!”

     My whining tone did the trick.  All he saw was some gringo in way over his head, which was exactly what I wanted him to see.  It kept him focused on me and not on what was silently lumbering up behind him on all fours.

     “Okay, okay.  Take it easy,” I said, looking down and to one side, signaling my submission in a way he’d instinctively understand.  “I’m going reach into my pocket and…”

     “Stop talking and just do it, fool!”

     I reached into the pocket of my coat and withdrew a thick envelope.  I started to hand it over to him and then pulled back.

     “The IDs…”

     Carlos practically snarled as he snatched at the envelope in my hand.  “Give me that!”

     I pulled my hand back just enough to keep it out of his reach.  The charade had gone on long enough.  I glanced over his shoulder, saw what I was looking for, and dropped the scared gringo act.

     “You might want to look behind you first,” I said, letting the boredom I was feeling with the whole situation color my voice.

     Surprisingly, Carlos caught the change in tone.  Maybe he was smarter than I was giving him credit for or maybe he just had a finely tuned sense of survival, I don’t know, but he seemed to recognize he was no longer in control of the situation.  His eyes narrowed and I could almost see the wheels turning in his head as he tried to figure out where the danger was coming from.

     It didn’t take long.

     From directly behind him came a roar that suddenly split the night in two, shockingly close and loud enough to make my knees tremble involuntarily despite the fact I’d known what was coming.

     Poor Carlos didn’t have any such warning and he nearly wet his pants as that cry sounded from directly behind him, so close that he could probably feel hot breath on the back of his neck.  His eyes got as round as saucers and he frantically spun around and tried to bring his gun to bear at the same time.

     Whatever it was that he expected to see there, I’m pretty sure that a ten foot tall polar bear wasn’t it.

     In the aftermath of my daughter Elizabeth’s disappearance I’d tried everything I could think of to discover what had happened to her.  When, after a few years, I’d exhausted the usual methods I’d delved into more esoteric ones.  Things like divination, witchcraft, and black magic.  It was in the course of those “investigations” that I’d encountered the Preacher.

     To this day I’m still not sure who or what he actually was or why he appeared to me, but it was through his help that I located a ritual that would let me see that which was unseen, and I’d used it in an effort to locate Elizabeth.

     As is typical of dark magick, the ritual did exactly what it promised to do but not in the way I’d expected.  Rather than helping me locate what was missing, it stole my natural sight and replaced it with something else, something I’ve come to call my Ghostsight.  Among other things, it lets me see the supernatural denizens of the world around me.  It doesn’t matter what they were, I can see them all; the good, the bad, and the scares-me-shitless.

     I’m not completely blind.  I can actually see better in complete darkness than most people can in broad daylight.  I can no longer see colors – everything comes out in a thousand shades of grey – but at least I can see.  The minute you put me in the light, however, everything goes dark.  Direct sunlight is the equivalent of a complete whiteout for me; I can’t even see the outline of my hand if I hold it directly in front of my face.  All I see is white.  Endless vistas of white.  Electrical lights are almost as bad, though if I use a pair of strong UV sunglasses I can see the vague shapes and outlines of things around me.

     Which was why I was standing in a dark alley at night wearing the darkest sunglasses I could find.

     Thanks to my Sight I’d known that Dmitri wasn’t just a simple bartender, but I hadn’t been able to pierce the glamour around him to know exactly what he was.  It was when I was hunting for the fetch earlier that fall that I’d discovered that he was a berserker.

     First mentioned in the Norse saga, Vatnsdoela, the berserkers were described as elite warriors that wore animal pelts on their heads and charged into battle in a ravaging frenzy, fighting so hard that they were nearly unstoppable.  Of course, the bards hadn’t quite gotten it right, never realizing that the berserkers were actually warriors that were so in touch with the totem spirits of certain animals that they could assume the physical properties of those beasts in battle, borrowing their strength, cunning, and senses to accomplish things they never could have done as mere humans.

     Dmitri and I decided to play it safe for tonight’s rendezvous, arriving early and having only one of us meet our intended contact.  While I did that, Dmitri would remain out of sight, ready to come to my assistance if necessary.

     Now, we were glad that we’d taken the extra precaution. 

     Dmitri reared up on his hind legs, towering over Carlos.  He opened his mouth and let loose another ground-shaking roar of challenge.  That close, his teeth seemed bigger than my clenched fist.

     To his credit, Carlos stood his ground, though what he thought a pistol was going to do against a brute like Dmitri was beyond me. 

     He needn’t have bothered.  Before he’d even managed to move his arm a few inches it was intercepted by the swipe of a massive fur-covered paw.  The impact sent Carlos spinning to the ground and the gun went flying off into the darkness.  Dmitri lumbered forward, straddled Carlos’s body and clamped his teeth firmly onto the back of the gangbanger’s neck.

     A few more ounces of pressure and bye-bye Carlos.

     For the first time all night, our would-be thief did the smart thing.

     He froze.

     Smiling now, I put one hand on Dmitri’s broad back and squatted down next to Carlos so that he could see me without having to move his head.  This close I could smell the stink of urine and feces that was coming off of him in waves.  From the smell I knew he’d be a bit more receptive to our needs now that we’d gotten the preliminaries out of the way.

     Good thing, too, since I was done dicking around.

     “One word from me and my friend here will crush your head like an eggshell.  Comprende, amigo?”

     He opened his mouth, only to find that his fear had stolen his voice.  He gaped like a fish a few times, vainly trying to get something out.

     I took that as a yes.

     “Where are the IDs?”

     This time he managed to find his voice.

     “Glove box,” he gasped out.

     I patted Dmitri on the back, rose to my feet, and walked over to the low rider.  I slid into the front seat, leaned over to the other side, and opened the glove box.  Inside I found another pistol and a manila envelope containing the driver’s licenses and passports that Carlos’ organization had agreed to provide.  I put the new IDs back in the envelope and then tucked that and the pistol into the pocket of my jacket.

      Carlos had left the keys in the ignition, perhaps in anticipation of a quick getaway after screwing us over. I took them with me as I got out of the car and threw them into the darkness as far as I could.

     Once I had, I signaled for Dmitri to let the other man up.

     Dmitri growled low in his chest, expressing his annoyance at the idea and eliciting another whimper of fear from Carlos, but with a little encouragement Dmitri eventually backed off, moving to sit on his haunches at my side.  Even seated, he towered over me.

     “Not a particularly bright play, Carlos,” I said, packing all the disdain for his intelligence that I could into the words.  “But today must be your lucky day, for I’ve decided to let you go.  Now get the hell out of here and don’t even try to come back for your car.”

     Carlos didn’t need to be told twice.  He scrambled to his feet and ran off, never once looking back.

     Dmitri turned his shovel-shaped head in my direction and grunted something.

     Having no idea what he’d just said, one roar sounding pretty much like the next, I just stared at him blankly.

     Another growl, a quick sensation of movement, and before I had time to look away, Dmitri was back in human form, standing in front of me completely naked and not seemingly bothered by it at all.

     Catching a glimpse of what he was carrying around with him, I could understand why.

     Some guys just get all the luck.

     He walked over to Denise’s car, a black Dodge Charger we’d borrowed for the evening’s activities, and pulled on the extra set of clothes that he’d brought along for that purpose.  I got in the passenger side, he slid in behind the wheel and we took off in a spray of dirt and gravel.

     Dmitri drove for a few blocks and then pulled into the parking lot of an all-night diner, finding a spot beneath one of the few street lamps illuminating the lot.

     “Give ‘em here,” he said.

     I passed him the envelope containing the fake IDs.

     Besides limiting my vision, the Preacher’s ritual had also robbed me of my ability to see photographs or paintings of any kind.  I could see the spot on the IDs where the images were supposed to be, but the images themselves were just flat black squares, making it impossible for me to judge how well the passports and driver’s licenses had turned out.

     Dmitri looked them over for a few minutes, even going so far as to hold them up to the light one at a time and turn them this way and that, before dropping them back into the envelope.

     “Good enough, I think,” he said, passing the envelope back to me, and I let out the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding.  If we’d gone through all this trouble only to end up with useless junk. . .

     But we hadn’t and that was good.  Really good.  Having the IDs would at least provide us some small measure of protection, allow us to do simple things that other people took for granted, like cashing a paycheck or signing a long-term lease on a piece of property.  Even opening up a bank account or getting a line of credit was now possible, though I don’t think I’d want to put our IDs up to that level of scrutiny unless it was absolutely necessary. 

     Dmitri started the car and pulled out into traffic, while I took out one of the prepaid cell phones we’d been using to communicate with one another and called to let Clearwater know we were on our way home.

     If I’d known what she was going to drag us into less than seventy-two hours later, I might have tossed the phone out the window and told Dmitri to head south at the fastest possible speed, do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dollars.

     Unfortunately, I didn’t.

 

Joe writes urban fantasy series and supernatural thrillers for a wide variety of publishers in the US and abroad, including Tor Books, Harbinger Books, HarperCollins, Harlequin/Gold Eagle, and Droemer Knaur.

Joe Nassise – who has written posts on Joseph Nassise.


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