by Eric Swett
Copyright © 2012 All rights reserved.
Cover design by Jan Marie Parupia (http://wordwriter1958.wordpress.com/)
Edited by Rudy Reyes
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.
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This book is dedicated to my wife and children.
Thank you for being my rock. You have always supported me in all of the insanity I pursue. I could not have done this without you.
Zachary and Connor,
You two remind me every day how easy it can be to smile if I only relax a little. I am truly blessed to have two such wonderful children.
Table of Contents
“Stupid bastard,” is all Lilly says as she kicks David’s unconscious form into the gutter. Her lips curl into a sneer of contempt as she spits on him and turns away. Personally I think it is a little over-dramatic, but to be fair, David is in fact a stupid bastard.
“He didn’t see anything,” I say, “so he shouldn’t be in any trouble.”
“Why does he have to be so loud,” she says as she kicks him again. Lilly and I had been hiding in the bathroom of an abandoned warehouse so that she could shoot up, but we heard someone yell. We went out for a look, and saw Albert stabbing a woman with a very large knife.
“Let’s get out of here before one of Albert's goons find us," I say. "He's going to be pissed and I think he saw us." Albert was all expensive suit, slicked back hair, and friendly smile on the outside, but he was a sadist of the highest order on the inside.
“Sounds good to me," she says. “I don't want David to get hurt. He's had it hard lately.” Lilly and I walk down the street, trying to look casual, but our hurried pace is a dead giveaway. Lilly mutters under her breath, “Man, why did we have to go there? I mean, Jesus, of all the places to get a fix.”
“No shit,” I say as I hunch my shoulders, trying to look shorter than I my normal six-feet. I tuck my hair under my hat and pull the brim down low to hide my eyes.
Lilly reaches into her coat pocket and pulls out a cigarette. She tries to look cool lighting it with her father’s old Zippo, but I can see the tremble in her hands. “Do you think we should have left him?” She takes a drag off her cigarette and exhales through her nose. Her long, black hair and too pale complexion makes her look like a ghost amidst the cloud of cigarette smoke.
I reach for her cigarette and take a drag before handing it back. “Yeah, if we had hung around Albert would have gotten there, and I don’t think he will take it out on the unconscious guy.” I pick up my pace, its subconscious at first, but the more I think about it the more I want to put as much space as possible between David’s passed out form and myself. “Have you ever been on Albert’s bad side before?” Lilly shakes her head and keeps her eyes staring straight ahead. “I still have the scars from being there.”
“Well then what do we do now?” Lilly asks. Her voice is flat, but the way her eyes search out every shadow tells me that she is scared. She was dragged into this life less than a year ago and learned well the danger of exposing your fear, but this is the first time she was in a spot she could not talk or screw her way out of.
“We run. We keep running until we feel safe and then run a little more.” She is lucky to be with me tonight. I have an escape plan ready.
“It sounds a little cliché to me.”
“Yeah, I suppose it does.” The sad thing is that I am being honest. The bulk of my plan includes running. Some of the running will be done in a car, but it is still running. I figure we have about half an hour to be away from everything we know before Albert's people can close in on us. We might have a little more time, but I would rather assume that he will send his thugs instead of doing it himself. Albert likes to do things in person, but he is no fool.
I do not normally carry cash on me because it is far too easy to lose, and tonight is no exception. I would give just about anything for a little cash at this moment. We are too far from my apartment to walk and still get away. This late at night we are not going to get a taxi in this part of town. That really only leaves two options: take a bus and cut it close or forget about hitting my place and leave with nothing. It was not a question, but I hate the bus.
"Come on, Lilly." I say as I drag her down the street for another block. I look up and down the road, making sure we are not being followed, then cross the street. We take shelter in a rundown bus stop, hiding beneath the rusty, hole-riddled roof that was there long before Lilly was born. Hell, the thing was probably older than her parents, but the mottled shadows within feel safe. The dark gloom inside is more comforting than the unforgiving streetlights outside. I keep an eye toward the street, watching for the bus that is due in five minutes. Lilly shivers against me despite the warm breeze of the night.
Time slows as we huddle in the dark. Lilly talks tough and acts the part, but she is new enough to the street to still feel the fear. I surrendered my fear long ago. I have been down low so long that anything more than survival is the shadow of a dream glimpsed through tinted windows. Hope is forgotten as soon as reality crashes back around me. I do not give us much of a chance for success tonight, but I have to try. If nothing else, I want to find a way to get her out of this sewer and give her a real life.
The bus heralds its arrival with the screech of over used breaks. We hurry into the bus, showing our bus passes and quickly moving to the back. Thankfully, the bus is nearly empty. The only other passengers are a drunk couple furiously making out, a homeless guy who smells of wet garbage and urine, and a prostitute. The amorous couple and the homeless guys are the regular window dressing for a two A.M. bus trip, but I know the hooker. She lives in my building and works for one of Albert's associates. We are leaving a trail already.
The twenty minutes it takes to get to my apartment drags on for an eternity. The hooker, Charlene is her name I think, never looks back at us, but I keep my eyes on her just the same. I hope that she does not notice us, but I know she has been on the street too long not to have. In the movies, street people claim to see nothing, but the reality is that they notice everything. Survival depends on not being caught unaware, so you learn to take note of every little detail, no matter how insignificant they seem.
The bus jerks to a stop a block from my apartment. I stand and drag Lilly after me. We pass Charlene as she stands up. Subtly is out of the question. Speed is all-important and I know the clock is working against us. “Come on, we’re running out of time,” I whisper roughly to Lilly as we leave the bus. She struggles to keep up. Her high heels make it hard for her to walk on the crooked, broken sidewalk of my neighborhood.
“I know, I know,” she says as she follows me. She is scared and I am sure I am not helping her either.
“I’m sorry, but we’ve only got about ten minutes before somebody checks my place for us and I’d really like to be gone before they get here.” The door to my apartment building comes into sight and I feel a wave of relief come over me, but it quickly crashes down about me as a long Grey sedan rounds the corner up ahead. It should be too soon, but my gut tells me it is no random occurrence. I turn down the alley on my right, pulling Lilly after me. We are too screwed, too quickly.
“What the hell…”
“Shut up! They’re already here,” I whisper as I clamp my hand over her mouth. “Damn it! I thought we’d have more time.” I look around, hoping to find something that might help out, but sometimes an alley is just an alley and it is filled with nothing but other people’s refuse. I pull my hand from Lilly’s mouth. “Get on my back. We need to get out of here.” I turn around and she climbs on board. ‘Thank God she’s small,’ I think to myself as we jog into the darkness away from my escape plan.
I turn the corner into another alley and hear two gunshots behind us. They are muffled, probably from within my apartment. Whoever had gone to find me had not been to my room before or they would not have shot the full-length mirror that hung on the wall opposite of my door. More than one visitor has been startled by seeing themselves upon entering. It does not surprise me that some thug would squeeze off a couple rounds after breaking down my door. It will not take long to figure out I am not there. They will start asking my neighbors and Charlene will tell them we were on the bus.
I would like to say that I have a backup plan, but my escape plan is my back up plan. I need some time to figure out what to do next. It takes time to stop and I know that they are too close and stopping means dying. My mind races for somewhere to go, someplace that Albert will not think of. I have been a local fixture for too long. Albert knows where to find me and probably knows where to find Lilly too. The only place we can go is nowhere we have been.
Uptown is the only place I can think of where we will not be found right away, but uptown is pretty far for us to walk and we have no other means of getting there. I could steal a car, but I do not want the police involved. Albert owns most of the local cops and most of the uptown ones as well. You do not get to be a big time player like him if you do not have the law on your side. It is times like this when I wish I could call for help.
Lilly’s muffled crying against my shoulder makes up my mind for me. If I am going to save us, I have to go back to my old life. It has been a long time since I left, but some lessons learned long ago become more instinct than memory. I know I am not as good as I once was, but the real question is whether I am good enough for right now. I have a few tricks up my sleeve, but we have to get uptown to stand a chance.
I say a little prayer as I run through the alley and take it as a good sign that my prayers are answered as we leave the alley. Sitting there on the little side street is a taxi with its “available” light lit. It is against all odds, but that is the beautiful thing about prayer. I walk over to the passenger side and knock on the window.
“Jesus!” The cabbie would have jumped out of his chair if not for the seat belt strapped across his lap.
“No, Justin, but I appreciate the compliment. Now can we get a ride?”
“You got money?” he asks.
“No, but wouldn’t you like to do something nice today and take us to uptown?” I am straining, trying to eke out as much goodwill and good fortune as I can.
It has been a long time since I have tried to bring forth the power and I have to throw all of my concentration behind it to get the trickle I am starting to feel.
“Ha! You’re a funny guy you know that? Ha!” The man in the cab pulls out a cigarette and lights up. He looks at me over his thick fingers as he delicately holds the cigarette to his lips. “What’s wrong with the girl?”
“She had a bit too much to drink and I need to get her home.” I keep my eyes locked on his while I feed the flow. I push at his heart and soul, trying to get him to let me in, but I am too weak, too out of practice.
“You two don’t look old enough to be drinking,” he says after taking a long drag. His smoke stained fingers grip the filter tightly. “In fact, you don’t look like you’ve been drinking at all.” He eyes me suspiciously.
“I wasn’t. I was just along for the ride. Before I knew it she was falling all over the place and I thought I had better get her out of there.” Suddenly I can feel it, the crack I am looking for. I push my will into the crack, feeding as much positive energy into it as I can muster.
There is a change in the cab driver. It is almost imperceptible, not much more than a twinkle in the man's eyes, but it is there. “Look kid, I can’t take you all the way uptown, at least not for free, but I can take you about half way okay?”
“Bless you Carl.” I open the door, put Lilly in and climb in beside her.
“All right, let’s get going,” Carl says as he turns the car on and quietly drives off. I feel something pull at my consciousness so I look over my shoulder in time to see three men walk out of the alley. It may be my imagination or the exhaustion from reaching out to Carl, but I see a glint of red through the darkness. It is the light in Carl’s eyes in reverse, only it comes from the men behind us. What have I gotten myself into?
Haden watched the cab drive away, noting the company and cab number. More importantly than either was the gentle white glow that shimmered around the dingy yellow car. 'This is an interesting development indeed,' he thought to himself. He stretched his arms out, stopping the two men who accompanied him. "Let them go. We'll let the lessers handle them for now." Haden turned back to the alley and walked into its waiting shadows. "We have to let Albert know what we're dealing with."
"What are we dealing with, boss?" asked Simon, Haden's newest thrall.
“Simon,” Haden said as he ran his well-manicured fingers through his short brown hair, "we're dealing with one of the Blessed." His voice suggested patience, but it carried an edge of anger. If he had been facing the other two men, Simon could have seen the hatred etched on Haden's face and would have known to keep his mouths shut. Of the two, only Peter had been around Haden long enough to recognize the particular tone in his master's voice. He motioned for Simon to shut up, but Simon was more brawn than brain and paid him no heed.
"Who are the Blessed?" Simon had been chosen for his size, not his brains, and Peter knew this was not going to end well.
Haden stopped walking. His face contorted with rage. "Why is it so hard to find a good thrall these days?" he asked haltingly. Each word filled with the careful anger he had built up over thousands of years. He quickly gained control of his features and smiled like a father who was patiently explaining things to his youngest child. "The Blessed, dear Simon, are the favored of God. They are the obedient sheep who don't fear the dark because they think they are safe within his arms." Haden stepped up to the quivering thrall, reached up and put his hands on either side of the man's head.
Peter wanted to step back, the power of Haden poured into the alley with so much pressure that Peter's ears popped as if he were in an airplane climbing for altitude. "They forget the world around them is a dark and scary place because they've not known true fear or love or hatred. They do not know the pain of solitude because they can always feel him." Haden's voice grew louder and the rage returned to his face as he lifted Simon up by his head. "They are why I am here; to remind them just how alone they are in this world!"
Haden threw Simon against the wall with enough force to crack the bricks, sending a spray of dust and blood that blossomed outward in an explosion that blanketed the alley. When his body hit the filthy asphalt floor with a wet hollow thump, it was obvious from the unnatural angle of his neck that Simon the thrall was no longer alive. Peter stared at the corpse of his former new partner and shook his head, as irritated that the man ignored his advice as he was at the new stains on his suit. "Do you want me to get rid of the body, master?"
"No, I have a better plan for him." Haden muttered something unintelligible, ran his hands down the front of his suit, and the blood fell away. He stepped over to the corpse and pressed a pair of fingers against its forehead, leaving a dark, blood colored mark in their place when he lifted them from the cooling skin. He stepped away from the dead thrall and commanded, "Rise." The corpse rose to its feat slowly, its movement sluggish and unbalanced. "Slave, go to the chirurgeon and tell him I sent you. Do not be seen by anyone on the way. Do you understand?"
"Yesss." The former thrall's voice was no longer his own. The words left his lips with a chill breath.
"Good. Now go." Haden turned back down the alley, walking at a brisk pace. "Come, Peter. We must find you a new partner before we seek Albert."
“Did you feel him, Neville?” Robert shouted as he flung open the doors and strode into the boardroom. Twenty faces turned to stare at him, all of them shocked by the loud interruption.
“Robert, please keep it down for a moment. We’ll talk after the meeting is done,” responded Neville with a wave of his hand indicating the well-dressed individuals sitting around the long oval table. His face was calm and impossible to read by any of the people indicated, but the flash in his eyes told Robert exactly how irritated his oldest friend really was.
“Very well, excuse me ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for the interruption.” Robert straightened his suit coat and grabbed the door. “I’ll be waiting in your office, Neville.” Without another word, he backed out of the boardroom, shutting the door behind him. Patience had never been his greatest quality. Some would say it was a quality he did not possess at all. As much as it irritated him, he would have to wait for just a little while. They had remained hidden for years without incident and serenity was often required from Robert; their cover demanded it.
Neville would gloss over the interruption and have the executives forgetting about Robert in no time at all. That was Neville’s greatest strength, to be able to guide people along a path of his choosing. Robert was constantly amazed at the way he could do it without having to overtly manipulate people. It was something in his voice and demeanor that made people want to trust him. Being the head of a multinational corporation was a perfect fit for him. Robert knew that Neville’s talents were wasted there when he could have made a real difference in the political arena.
As he walked down the hall, Robert ignored the people walking by as he made his way to Neville’s office He stopped once he stood before Neville’s secretary. “Good morning, Avery.”
“Good morning, Mr. Parker,” she said with a smile. “Mr. Steinner is in a meeting this morning, but he should be done before too long if you care to wait.” Avery Simmons knew very well that Robert had barged into the meeting since she had a direct video feed into the conference room playing on one of the monitors arrayed around the front of her desk, but she was far too professional to admit as much to Robert.
“Thank you, Avery. I’ll wait in his office,” Robert said with a nod and a grin that would have left most women swooning, but Avery had always been immune to his charms, which was probably why Neville had hired her.
"Would you like me to send in some refreshment?" Her smile was pleasant with just a hint of arrogance. She reveled in her immunity.
"No, I'll make do with whatever is lying around." It would not be much, but he was not in the mood for food or drink.
“Very well sir.” Without another word, she went back to what she had been working on when he had walked up.
Robert passed Avery and entered Neville’s office through the large oak double doors that overwhelmed most visitors. Few people knew it, but the doors were all that remained of an old Catholic church that had been destroyed during the horrific bombing of Dresden, Germany. He was uncertain whether the smell of blood and ash that he sensed when he walked through the doors was his imagination or some lingering haunting from the terror of those three days so long ago. When Neville had first installed the doors, Robert had asked why. He said that it was to remind himself that even great works can be destroyed in a fit of anger. Robert thought it had more to do with the intimidation such doors engendered when someone stood before them.
The office was bright with the sun’s morning light as it struggled to gain height in the morning sky, the dark portent of the previous night’s activities weighing it down. Robert walked to the floor-to-ceiling windows that made up half of the walls in the large rectangular space. He looked down upon the world like a dispassionate god of eons long since forgotten. Time ticked by slowly as he watched the movement of cars and people moving through the city. They were all little more than specs of dust blown about by an errant gust of wind as seen from that high up.
“How do you keep from forgetting about them my brother?” Robert whispered as sorrow welled up within him and threatened to choke away the control he barely maintained.
“To be honest I often do.” Neville stood just inside the doorway of his office, the great doors closing as silently as they had opened. Neville walked up to the glass and put his hands upon it, relishing the cold against his skin. “I spend too much time here and not enough amongst every day people.” With a sigh he pulled his hands from the window and turned to face his friend. “That is why your council is so important to me, dear Robert. You see them as they are, not the abstract they appear as to me.”
A heavy silence grew as they stared at each other, both hesitant to speak first. They had been waiting for this time for so long that they had begun to think that for once, a mistake was made and that all of their efforts had been a waste.
Robert was the first to break the tension as he slowly regained the excitement that had started his visit with Neville. “You felt him didn’t you?”
“Yes, I did.” Neville turned and paced about the office. “It was weak, but there was no mistaking it as him.”
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