Check out Watcher of the Dark, a Jeremiah Hunt supernatual thriller by Joseph Nassise, available November 19th from Tor Books!
Jeremiah Hunt has learned a lot since his life was irrevocably hijacked by fate months ago. But when he performs an arcane ritual to reclaim the soul of the magically gifted, beautiful woman who once saved him, he must flee the law once again, to Los Angeles, city of angels, a temporary sanctuary.
In L.A., he has to contend with Carlos Fuentes, who sees in Hunt a means to obtain the mystical key that would open the gates of Hell. Fuentes knows Hunt’s weakness—his loyalty to the woman he loves, and to another “gifted” friend—and uses the real threat of torturing them as a way to get Hunt to help complete his dread quest.
I bolted awake in the shitty little motel room I’d been calling home for the last three weeks, with my heart jack-hammering in my chest and my skin coated with a thin sheen of sweat. The room was as dark as an oil slick thanks to the way I’d taped the drapes, already as thick as medieval tapestries, against the wall behind them to keep out even the faintest glimmer of light. In that darkness, however, I had no trouble seeing Whisper standing beside my bed, watching me with a flat expression on her usually animated face.
Whisper’s real name was Abigail Matthews. She’d been dead for a little over three years. Not that that was a problem for me; I can see the dead as easily as I can see the living.
Once upon a time, I was just an average Joe living the American dream. Life might not have been perfect, but you wouldn’t have caught me complaining. I had everything I’d always wanted. I was married to a good-looking woman who loved me as much as I loved her. We owned a house and a good-sized piece of property in a nice little neighborhood in Boston, not far from the law firm where my wife Anne had made partner and within easy commuting distance to Cambridge where I was on the fast track for tenure as a professor of ancient languages at Harvard University. We had a bright, precocious daughter, Elizabeth, who was the best of both of us combined into one. We were happy, content, and as oblivious to the reality of the world around us, to the dark things that move within it, as an ant is to the theory of relativity.
We were living the dream, so of course reality had to rear up and bite us on the ass.
Our daughter disappeared one day, just vanished without a trace from her second-story bedroom. I later learned that 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 with which it came into contact. That took five long years and what felt like a lifetime, though. In the beginning there was just confusion, guilt, and a desperate need to find Elizabeth and bring her home.
In the aftermath of Elizabeth’s disappearance I’d tried everything I could 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. That’s when I met the Preacher.
To this day, I’m not sure what he is. Sorcerer? Demon? Something worse, maybe? I honestly don’t know. Not knowing hasn’t stopped me from bargaining with him for what I want, however. He’s appeared to me twice and each time his assistance has proved crucial in resolving what seemed like an insurmountable problem, but, like Faust before me, I always paid a price.
The first time that he appeared, the Preacher offered me a book claiming that its contents would help me find my daughter if I was brave enough to follow it. Inside that book I discovered an arcane ritual, one that was supposed to allow me to see that which was unseen. I performed the ritual, but it didn’t work out quite the way I’d expected. Rather than helping me locate my missing daughter, it altered my sight, changing it in a way I never would have imagined possible. From that day forward daylight has been like darkness to me, the light preventing me from seeing anything but endless vistas of white, like an arctic explorer caught in the whiteout of a winter storm. In the light I was effectively blind and was forced to learn how to navigate through a world I could no longer see.
What was even more terrifying was the fact that the change stripped away the Veil that keeps humans from seeing the true nature of the creatures that move among us like wolves among the sheep and revealed the supernatural world around me in all its hideous detail. The world is a cesspit full of creatures you can’t possibly imagine, all waiting to devour the hearts, minds, and souls of those careless enough to get in their way.
That night I discovered the monsters in our world and they, in turn, discovered me.
It was Whisper who rescued me from the near-paralyzing fear that the discovery had caused. She’s been my comfort, my rock, which is rather ironic given she’s no more substantial than a wisp of fog on a cool summer night.
I hadn’t seen her since the night I lay dying in a New Orleans drainage canal with an FBI agent’s bullet in my guts, when she and the ghost of my dead daughter, Elizabeth, had appeared to me in a vision, showing me the horror about to descend on the Big Easy.
She’d played the harbinger of doom that night, and, given my current reaction to her appearance and the expression of concern on her usually jovial face, I had to believe she had now returned for a repeat performance.
Whisper stared at me with those ancient eyes, eyes that had seen far more than I could ever imagine, and then she spoke.
“He’s coming, Hunt,” she said, in a voice that dripped omens and shook with an angel’s might. “Run. Run while you can.”
My mouth fell open in shocked surprise; in the three years that I’d known her, Whisper had never said a single word. I hadn’t even known she had the ability to speak.
The raw power in her voice had the hair on the back of my neck and arms standing tall in response, and I realized that in that moment I was afraid of her. The fear, her message, even her very presence had totally flustered me, and it took a few seconds to wrap my head around it all. I must have looked like an idiot, propped there on my elbow with my mouth hanging open, but finally my brain caught up with what was happening and her words registered.
I sat up and swung my legs out of bed, suddenly, irrationally afraid of the emptiness of the room around us, as I asked, “Who? Who’s coming, Whisper?”
She glanced toward the door and then back at me, a look of such empty sadness on her face that I wanted to weep at the sight of it.
“Too late,” she whispered and then abruptly faded from view.
No sooner had she vanished than the door of my hotel room was kicked open with a splintering crash.
There’s nothing that hones your reaction time like living with the constant fear of discovery, especially when you know that those chasing you are more apt to shoot first and ask questions later. Much later. I left New Orleans with both the local authorities and the FBI gunning for me and had been waiting for weeks now for one or the other to figure out where I’d gone to ground, so I was up and moving before the remains of the door had time to bounce off the carpet. I snatched the baseball bat I kept by the side of the bed off the floor as I rushed past, headed for the bathroom and the window it contained. The early morning light was pouring in through the now-open doorway, stealing my sight away from me, and, even as I squeezed my eyes shut in a futile attempt to block it out, I watched the world in front of me disappear behind a gleaming curtain of white.
Thankfully, it didn’t matter; I didn’t really need to see to know where I was going. The motel room I was staying in wasn’t much bigger than a walk-in closet and I’d taken the time to pace out the room and the area outside it when I first checked in, mapping it all out in my head, just in case something like this happened and I had to make a hasty departure.
I kept expecting someone to shout “Stop! Police!,” but the fact that such calls never came didn’t slow me down any; I was getting out of there no matter what. Of course, that should have been my first clue that this wasn’t the U.S. Marshals come to drag me back to Boston.
As soon as I felt the bathroom tiles beneath my bare feet, I spun around and slammed the door, jabbing the lock button down with my thumb. Something heavy slammed into the other side half a second later, but I wasn’t waiting around to find out who, or what, it was. With barely a pause I crossed the room, felt for the window, and then used the bat to smash out the glass. I tossed the bat out ahead of me, snatched a towel off the nearby rack, and laid it over the sill to keep me from slashing myself to ribbons on any leftover glass that I couldn’t see. Preparations finished, I hefted myself through the opening headfirst.
Or, at least, I tried.
Hands suddenly grabbed me about the ankles with a grip as tight as a vise. I almost let go of the sill out of sheer surprise, as I’d been too wrapped up in what I was doing to hear the door give way behind me. One good yank was all it took for whoever it was to haul me most of the way back inside the room. I was stretched out over the bathroom floor, my hands latched in a death grip on the windowsill as my assailant steadily pulled me backward by the ankles.
I could hear several voices coming from the direction of the bedroom and knew that reinforcements were on the way. I had seconds, at best, to get free or I was going to be in a shitload of trouble. I had no idea who these people were, but it was a safe assumption that they didn’t have my best interests at heart; you didn’t kick in the door of a man’s motel room to invite him out for a venti caramel macchiato. In desperation, I began kicking and flailing my legs, trying to dislodge my would-be captor’s grip. To my surprise it worked; my left leg popped free. The person behind me was shouting in a language that sounded suspiciously like Russian as I brought my knee up and then sent my foot hammering back down with all the force I could muster, using the other’s voice to hone in on my target.
Something crunched beneath my heel as it collided with what I hoped was his face. There was a sharp yelp of pain and then my legs were free. I scrambled for a few seconds and then my right foot found the edge of the toilet and I used it as a brace to push myself forward.
I tumbled out the window, landing hard on the second-floor walkway outside. Countless little shards of glass, the detritus of the window I’d just smashed to smithereens, jabbed into my bare flesh, but I ignored them, compartmentalizing the pain to be dealt with at some later point, knowing that if I didn’t get my ass out of there I probably wouldn’t live long enough to bleed to death anyway. I scrambled to my feet and reached out with my hands, searching blindly for the rusty old iron railing I knew was there somewhere. When I found it a moment later it was with my left hand, which told me I was facing back toward my room. Given that was the last place I wanted to be, I spun around, put my right hand against the railing as a guide, and took off as fast as I could go down the walkway toward the stairwell at far end of the motel.
It said something about the kind of place I was staying in that no one moved to stop the near-naked tattooed guy dressed only in his boxer shorts running helter-skelter down the length of the second-floor walkway leaving bloody footprints in his wake, which, when it came right down to it, was probably best for all involved. After all, I couldn’t see a damn thing; if someone had stepped out in front of me I would have simply slammed into them full speed, and I had little doubt that the collision probably would have ended with one of us tumbling ass-overelbows over the railing and falling an entire story to the unforgiving cement of the parking lot below.
Not anyone’s idea of a successful escape.
I’d taken less than a dozen steps before shouts behind me let me know that whoever it was that had broken into my room was now in hot pursuit.
Again, there was no order to stop, no cries identifying my pursuers as law enforcement of any kind. I was starting to think I might be in more hot water than I’d originally suspected and pushed myself to go faster while trying to figure out a way out.
The stairwell would take me to the ground floor. If I could get to the bottom ahead of my pursuers, I might be able to get to the motel office where I could hopefully scrounge up some help or at least find a place I could hide long enough for the cops to show up.
If anyone had bothered to call the cops, which was not a foregone conclusion by any means in this part of town.
Still, I knew there was no sense in worrying about it; what would be would be. I just needed to get my skinny ass down there and hope for the best.
That was the distance from my bathroom window to the stairwell at the end of the walkway by the corner of the building. I was counting my steps off as I ran—fifteen, sixteen, seventeen—using my hand on the guardrail to keep me moving in a straight line.
I’d walked this exact route dozens of times already, and I knew that I had to slow down around the twenty-eighth step to keep from overshooting the stairs. Once I made the turn onto the stairwell I could speed up again, but making that turn without falling down was crucial to getting away, so I was totally focused on the numbers reeling out inside my head.
I was still ten steps off my count when I felt the railing disappear beneath my right hand, signaling the entrance to the stairwell. I heard someone shout, “No!” from behind, but it took my brain another precious few seconds to catch up with what my body was telling me: I’d gone too far, too fast.
My legs hit the railing in front of me at midthigh and carried me right over.
I screamed like a girl all the way down.
I thought I’d been pretty smart, pacing out that distance and knowing exactly how far I had to go if the shit hit the fan. A little too smart, as it turned out, as I hadn’t taken into account the difference in my stride. Walking that distance was one thing; doing it pumped full of adrenaline and running hellbent for leather to save my hide was another.
All of this flashed through my head as I plummeted downward, and I found it more than a little ironic that I had managed to defeat a sorcerer and his pet fetch, live through a full-fledged throw down with an embodiment of the Grim Reaper himself, and escape from the FBI only to wind up killing myself because I suck at math.
Sometimes, life just doesn’t seem fair.
Fully expecting to splatter myself against the unforgiving ground, I was shocked for a second time that morning as I plunged into the freezing waters of the motel swimming pool. The cold made me gasp in surprise and I inhaled a boatload of overchlorinated water as a result, causing my body to start convulsing as it tried to rid itself of the offending substance.
This was seriously not my morning!
I probably would have spent the next few minutes trying to figure out which way was up—and ended up drowning in the process—if my ass hadn’t slammed into the bottom of the swimming pool at that point.
My eyes popped open, dazzling me with an unending field of white, and my brain threw that internal switch that fired up my ghostsight as my body’s innate survival instincts kicked in and it searched for a way out of the mess I’d landed it in yet again.
I immediately saw that I wasn’t alone there at the bottom of the pool. The ghosts of three teenage girls killed by a serial rapist back in the ’70s stared hungrily at me from out of the black, brackish water that surrounded us as my ghostsight painted everything with a patina of death and decay. The girls’ long hair floated like halos around their heads, but there was nothing angelic about their smiles of welcome as they drifted toward me.
Choking and gagging, with my thoughts starting to grow hazy as a result of my continuing lack of oxygen, I got my feet under me and pushed, sending my drowning body rocketing upward.
My vision slipped back to normal as I broke the surface of the water, the light blinding me to my surroundings. Still gagging and choking up everything I had swallowed, I had just enough strength left to thrash my way over to the edge of the pool and grab hold so I wouldn’t go under again. I was hanging there, hacking up mouthfuls of chlorinated water, trying to catch my breath, and expecting at any moment to feel the cold, hungry grip of the ghosts’ hands around my ankles when someone pressed the barrel of a gun against my forehead.
“Don’t you fucking move, cabrón,” said a voice in my ear.
I had absolutely no intention of doing so, but I didn’t tell him that. I couldn’t; I was still coughing up half of the swimming pool.
I heard hurried footsteps—two, maybe three people, I couldn’t be sure—and then the gun was pulled away from my forehead. The voice spoke again. “You two. Get him out of there!”
Rough hands grabbed my arms and hauled me out of the pool. I was still weak from my near-asphyxiation and almost fell when they tried to make me stand; the hands grabbed me again and held on until my feet steadied under me.
“Damn it! The bastard’s dripping all over my new shoes,” the one on my right said. My brain automatically cataloged what it could from the sound: male, thirty, maybe thirty-five years old, a bit shorter than I was given the way the sound rose to meet me. He was from somewhere back east, like I was. New York. Maybe South Jersey. I wasn’t sure. He was a smoker too; the nicotine practically wafted off of him.
“Fuck your shoes; they’re ugly anyway.”
On my left. A tall female who I guessed had to be built like an ox because she’d lifted me out of the water one-handed. Russian, or at least Eastern European, from the sound of her voice. Was she the one I’d kicked in the bathroom? Must not have hit her as hard as I thought.
“Ugly? What the hell do you know about…”
Jersey didn’t get any further.
“Shut up,” said the guy with the gun, and both of them went silent immediately.
Definitely no doubt about who the boss was.
I was getting tired of standing around shivering in the light unable to see the people who’d just livened up my day so nicely. The dead girls were watching us from the middle of the pool, so I reached out and stole the sight from one of them.
There was a moment of dizziness, sharp and intense, and then the taste of bitter ashes flooded my mouth as the world swam back into view in rich, vibrant colors, ten times brighter and more vivid than anything I remembered from the days before I lost my sight.
Oh, the things the dead can see! They see everything, from the fallen angels that swoop over the narrow city streets on ash gray wings to the changelings that walk among us unseen, safe in their human guises. The glamourlike charms that supernatural entities use to conceal themselves from human sight are no match for the eyes of a ghost.
But what has always struck me as the cruelest irony is that despite being unable to feel emotions of their own, ghosts can see them pouring off the living without any difficulty whatsoever. It’s like each emotion has its own wavelength, its own unique color, like a beam of light seen through a prism. And it isn’t just the living, either. Inanimate objects can give off emotions too. If the object was important enough to its owner, over time it would soak up whatever emotions the living attached to it. A child’s teddy bear might glow with the pure white light of unconditional love, while a secret gift from a clandestine lover might shine with scarlet eroticism. The rule of thumb, I’d discovered, was that the more important the object was to its owner, the brighter the glow.
I didn’t want them to know I was capable of seeing anything, so I kept my eyes slightly unfocused as I moved my head from side to side, trying to make it look like I was just trying to hear them better. In the process, I got a decent look at all three of them.
The guy on my right didn’t look like anything too out of the ordinary, just a wiry fellow of medium height with a crazy shock of orange hair atop his head going in every which direction and the quick, twitchy movements of somebody with a severe case of ADD. He was dressed in a wide-lapelled maroon suit with a perfectly folded pocket square and pair of now-wet leather shoes. The silvery gleam that surrounded him let me know he was one of the Gifted, those humans who have gained the ability to tap into the supernatural essence of the world and use it for their own means, but the weakness of the aura told me he wasn’t all that powerful.
The same couldn’t be said for his two companions, however. Just one look at either of them was enough to tell me that I’d gone from the frying pan into the fire.
The woman was not the weight-lifting Russian musclehead I’d been expecting, but was instead a complete stunner who practically dripped sexual attraction: long legs wrapped in a pair of skintight leather pants, a beautifully curvaceous body peeking out of a silk blouse, and a head full of long dark hair that fell past her shoulders. There was a gleam in her eyes that promised delights beyond anything you could possibly imagine, and when she licked her lips just so, as she did when I glanced in her direction, the average red-blooded American male would have had more than a little trouble concentrating.
Thankfully I didn’t, as my ghostsight allowed me to see past all of that to the true creature behind the disguise she wore. Don’t get me wrong, she was still beautiful, but the demonic blood that ran through her veins was easy enough to see when the Veil was stripped away. The sense of hunger, of sheer need, that rolled off of her had my body responding despite the fact that my head was screaming no. She would no doubt provide a night beyond your wildest dreams, but that might just end up being the last one you would enjoy. I didn’t need anything that badly, thank you very much.
But as scary as the demon half-breed might have been, she was nothing compared to the leader of the group. If the cold hadn’t had me shaking, the sight of him would have done the trick. He was a tall Hispanic man in his midthirties, maybe six foot one or so, with a cleanly shaven head and an angular face that ended in a dark goatee. His eyes, as black as night, stared out from deep sockets that gave his face an almost skeletal appearance.
He had a fur-lined men’s coat draped over his shoulders but was otherwise naked from the waist up, displaying the upper body tattoo he was sporting. That tattoo was a riot of shapes and colors and depicted a hellish landscape where demons and devils were tormenting humans in a hundred different ways. The figures in it, human and demon alike, appeared to writhe and move of their own accord if you stared at them for too long. From the waist down he wore black jeans held up by a belt with an oversized silver buckle, and he had leather motorcycle boots on his feet. In his right hand was the pistol that had been pressed against my forehead just moments before.
The gun wasn’t what made him scary, though. Call me crazy, but I was much more frightened by the aura that surrounded him, an aura full of corruption and the shifting faces of the restless dead—each one representing some innocent soul that he’d taken during the practice of his dark arts—than I was by the blue-tinted piece of Detroit steel in his hand. This guy was a serious practitioner, far more powerful than my friend Denise Clearwater or even her former companion Simon Gallagher, the combat mage.
That much power was scary in and of itself. In the hands of someone like this, it was terrifying.
I didn’t know who the hell these people were or what they wanted with me, but it didn’t take a genius to realize that going anywhere with them was probably not a good idea, so I did the one thing no one ever expects the blind guy to do.
I bolted to the right, wanting to get away from Demon Lady as quickly as I could while still staying out of Tattoo’s reach. That meant passing a bit closer to Jersey than I wanted, but I dealt with that by knocking him backward as I pushed past. There was a shout of surprise and a splash, which brought a smile to my face, but I was too busy racing for the iron fence surrounding the pool. If I could get over that and into the building beyond, I might stand a chance…
I wasn’t worried about Tattoo’s gun, as strange as that may sound. After all, if they’d come to kill me they could have done it half a dozen times already. The fact that they hadn’t spoke volumes. The gun was meant to intimidate me, to force my compliance, and it only had as much power over me as I was willing to give it. Now that I’d shown I wasn’t going to be cowed, they’d be forced to try something else.
The crack of the gunshot and the spang of the bullet ricocheting off the fence in front of me told me I had a lot more to be worried about than I’d thought.
So much for that theory.
I caught the fence with both hands and vaulted over it, the perfect picture of grace in motion. Then my wet feet slipped out from under me as I landed on the flagstone walkway on the other side and I stumbled forward, staggering to and fro as I fought to keep my balance. My vision was starting to white out around the edges, the increasing distance between me and the ghost of the dead girl whose sight I borrowed weakening the link between us, and I knew I’d be blind again in another ten feet or so.
Finally catching my balance, I looked up just in time to see the figure of a man looming on my right.
I never even saw the punch coming.
It caught me in the solar plexus, paralyzing my diaphragm and driving all the air from my lungs with one short, sharp blow.
I went down like a side of beef.
A face loomed over me as I lay there trying to suck air into lungs that were suddenly not cooperating.
“Going somewhere, Princess?” he asked. Apparently I really did suck at math. There were four of them, not three.
Watcher of the Dark © Joseph Nassise, 2013