We’ve got a sneak peek at Seanan McGuire’s Midnight Blue Light Special, out on March 5th from DAW Books:
1. Any creature whose existence has been suggested but not proven scientifically. Term officially coined by cryptozoologist John E. Wall in 1983.
2. That thing that’s getting ready to eat your head.
3. See also: “monster.”
The Price family has spent generations studying the monsters of the world, working to protect them from humanity—and humanity from them. Enter Verity Price. Despite being trained from birth as a cryptozoologist, she’d rather dance a tango than tangle with a demon, and when her work with the cryptid community took her to Manhattan, she thought she would finally be free to pursue competition-level dance in earnest. It didn’t quite work out that way…
But now, with the snake cult that was killing virgins all over Manhattan finally taken care of, Verity is ready to settle down for some serious ballroom dancing—until her on-again, off-again, semi-boyfriend Dominic De Luca, a member of the monster-hunting Covenant of St. George, informs her that the Covenant is on their way to assess the city’s readiness for a cryptid purge. With everything and everyone she loves on the line, there’s no way Verity can take that lying down.
Alliances will be tested, allies will be questioned, lives will be lost, and the talking mice in Verity’s apartment will immortalize everything as holy writ—assuming there’s anyone left standing when all is said and done. It’s a midnight blue-light special, and the sale of the day is on betrayal, deceit…and carnage.
“Well, that’s not something you see every day. Go tell your father that Grandma needs the grenades.”
A small survivalist compound about an hour’s drive east of Portland, Oregon
Thirteen years ago
Verity stood with her hands folded in front of her and her feet turned out in first position, watching her father read her report card. They were alone in his study. That was something she would normally have relished, given how hard it was to get her father’s attention all to herself. At the moment, she would rather have been just about anywhere else, including playing hide-and-seek with Antimony. (Annie was just six, and she was already beating both her older siblings at hide-and-seek on a regular basis. It was embarrassing. It would still have been better than this.)
Kevin Price stared at the report card a little too long before lowering it, meeting Verity’s grave stare with one of his own. “Verity. You need to understand that blending in with the rest of the students is essential. We send you to school so you can learn to fit in.”
“Yes, Daddy. I know.”
“We can never attract too much attention to ourselves. If we do, things could get very bad for us. The Covenant is still out there.”
“I know, Daddy.” Most of the kids in third grade were afraid of the bogeyman. Verity didn’t mind bogeymen—they were pretty nice, mostly, if you didn’t let them talk you into doing anything you weren’t supposed to do—but there was one monster that she was afraid of, one you couldn’t argue with or shoot. It was called “Covenant,” and one day it was going to come and carry them all away.
“So why have you been fighting with the other students?”
Verity looked down at her feet. “I’m bored. They’re all so slow, and I never get to do anything fun.”
“I see.” Kevin put the offending report card down on his desk, half covering a report on the New Mexico jackalope migration. He cleared his throat, and said, “We’re enrolling you in gymnastics. You’ll be keeping your dance lessons, for now, but I want you to have a way to work off that extra energy. And Verity?”
“Play nicely with the other children, or you won’t be taking any more ballet classes. Am I clear?”
Relief flooded through her. It wasn’t victory—victory would have been more dance lessons, not stupid gymnastics—but it was closer than she’d been willing to hope for. “Absolutely. I won’t let you down again, I promise.”
“I’ll hold you to that.” Kevin leaned forward to hug his older daughter, mind still half on the teacher comments from her report card. If she couldn’t learn to blend in, she was going to need to find a way to stand out that wouldn’t get them all killed . . . and she needed to do it fast, before they all ran out of time.
“The best thing I ever did was figure out how to hide a pistol in my brassiere. The second best thing I ever did was let Thomas figure out how to find it, but that’s a story for another day.”
The subbasement of St. Catherine’s Hospital, Manhattan, New York
The air in the subbasement smelled like disinfectant and decay—the worst aspects of hospital life—overlaid with a fine dusting of mildew, just to make sure it was as unpleasant as possible. Only about a quarter of the lights worked, which was almost worse than none of them working at all. Our flashlights would have been more useful in total darkness. All they could do in this weird half-light was scramble the shadows, making them seem even deeper and more dangerous.
“I think there are rats down here,” Sarah whispered, sounding disgusted. “Why did you take me someplace where there are rats? I hate rats.”
“It was this or the movies, and the rats seemed cheaper,” I whispered back. “Now be quiet. If that thing is down here with us, we don’t want to let it know we’re coming.”
Sarah’s glare somehow managed to be visible despite the shadows. The irony of telling the telepath to shut the hell up didn’t escape me. Unfortunately for Sarah and her need to complain endlessly about our surroundings, I needed her to stay focused. We were looking for something so different from the human norm that we weren’t even sure she’d be able to “see” it. That meant not dividing her telepathy just for the sake of whining without being heard.
(Sarah is a cuckoo—a breed of human-looking cryptid that’s biologically more like a giant wasp than any sort of primate, and telepathic to boot. Evolution is funky sometimes.)
To be fair, Sarah hadn’t exactly volunteered for this little mission. Sarah rarely volunteers for any mission, little or otherwise, and was much happier staying at home, doing her math homework, and chatting with my cousin Artie on her computer. I’m pretty sure that much peace and quiet is bad for you, so I drag her out whenever I can find an excuse. Besides, there’s something to be said for having a telepath with you when you go hunting for things that want to eat your head.
“Wait.” Sarah grabbed my arm. I stopped where I was, glancing back at her. Her glare was still visible, less because of its ferocity and more because her eyes had started to glow white. It would have been unnerving as hell if I hadn’t been hoping that was going to happen.
“What?” I whispered.
“Up ahead,” she said. “We’re here.” She pointed toward one of the deeper patches of shadow with her free hand—a patch of shadow that I’d been instinctively avoiding. I nodded my appreciation and started in that direction, Sarah following half a step behind me. The shadows seemed to darken as we approached, spreading out to swallow the thin beams of our flashlights.
“I love my job,” I muttered, and stepped into the dark.
* * *
Fortunately for my desire not to spend eternity wandering in a lightless hell, Sarah was right: we had reached our destination. The darkness extended for no more than three steps before we emerged into a clean, well-lit hallway with cheerful posters lining the walls. At least they seemed cheerful, anyway, as long as you didn’t look at them too closely. I pride myself on having a strong stomach, and one glance at the poster on gorgon hygiene was enough to make me want to skip dinner for the next week. (Here’s a hint: All those snakes have to eat, and anything that eats has to excrete. This, and other horrifying images, brought to you by Mother Nature. Proof that if she really exists, the lady has got a sick sense of humor.)
A white-haired woman dressed in cheerful pink hospital scrubs was standing by the admissions desk. She would have looked like any other attending nurse if it weren’t for her yellow-rimmed pigeon’s eyes and the wings sprouting from her shoulders, feathers as white as her hair. Her feet were bare, and her toenails were long enough to be suggestive of talons. She looked up at the sound of our footsteps, and her expression passed rapidly from polite greeting to confusion before finally settling on cautious relief.
“Verity Price?” she ventured, putting down her clipboard and taking a step in our direction. Her voice had a flutelike quality that blurred the edges of her accent, making it impossible to place her origins as anything more precise than “somewhere in Europe.”
“That’s me,” I agreed. “This is my cousin, Sarah Zellaby.”
“Hi,” said Sarah, waving one hand in a short wave.
The white-haired woman gave Sarah a quick once-over, one wing flicking half-open before snapping shut again. She looked puzzled. “Dr. Morrow didn’t tell me you would be bringing an assistant, Miss Price,” she said slowly.
“He probably forgot,” I said. I was telling the truth. People have a tendency to forget about Sarah unless she’s standing directly in front of them, and sometimes even then. It’s all part of the low-grade telepathic masking field she inherited from her biological parents. There’s a reason we consider her species of cryptid one of the most dangerous things in the world.
“Nice to meet you,” said Sarah. “I never knew there was a hospital down here.”
As usual, it was exactly the right thing to say. The white-haired woman smiled, both wings flicking open this time in visible pleasure. “It required a very complicated piece of sorcery to conceal it here, but it’s more than worth the cost of maintenance. We have access to the whole of St. Catherine’s when we require it, which prevents our needing to acquire some of the more specialized equipment for ourselves.”
“Clever,” I said. Inwardly, I was salivating over the idea of getting, say, an MRI film of a lamia. There’d be time for that later. This was the time for business. “When Dr. Morrow contacted me, he said you were having trouble.”
“Yes.” The white-haired woman nodded, expression growing grim. “It’s started again.”
“Show me,” I said.
* * *
St. Catherine’s was one of five hospitals located within a two-mile radius. That might seem excessive, but two were privately owned, one was more properly termed a hospice, and one—St. Giles’—was constructed under the subbasement at St. Catherine’s. St. Giles’ didn’t appear on any map, and wasn’t covered by any medical insurance plan. That was because, for the most part, their patients weren’t human.
Over the centuries, humanity has had a lot of names for the sort of people who go to places like St. Giles’ Hospital. There’s the ever-popular “monsters,” and the almost as enduring “freaks of nature.” Or you could go with “abominations,” if that’s what floats your boat. My family has always been fond of the slightly less pejorative “cryptids.” They’re still people, men and women with thoughts and feelings of their own. They just happen to be people with tails, or scales, or pretty white wings, like the woman who was now leading us down the hall toward the maternity ward.
Sarah caught me studying our guide and shot me an amused look, accompanied by an arrow of audible thought: She’s a Caladrius. She’s wondering if you’ll notice, and a little bit afraid you’ll start demanding feathers.
Whoa, I replied, trying not to stare. Caladrius are some of the best doctors in the world. Their feathers have a supernatural healing quality that no one’s ever been able to duplicate. That’s why there are so few Caladrius left. They used to volunteer to help with any sick or injured creature they encountered, regardless of the dangers to themselves. It took them a long time, and the slaughter of most of their species, before they learned to be cautious around humanity.
“Here,” said the nurse, stopping in front of a doorway. It was blocked off with plastic sheeting, lending it an ominous air. She gestured to it with one hand, but made no move to pull the plastic aside. “I’m sorry. I can’t go in with you.”
“I understand,” I said. I did, really. If Dr. Morrow’s report was correct, we were about to walk into a slaughterhouse. Caladrius will heal the wounded if they possibly can, but they can’t bear the sight of the dead. Dead people look like failure to them. “Thanks for showing us the way.”
“If you need anything . . .” she began.
Sarah smiled. “We’ll call,” she said. “Loudly.”
That is so much nicer than “we’ll scream until you send backup,” I thought.
Sarah’s smile widened.
Looking relieved, the Caladrius nodded. “I’ll be at my desk if you need me.” Then she turned, hurrying away before we could think of a reason to need her to stay. Sarah and I watched her go. Then Sarah turned to me, a wordless question in her expression.
“I’ll go first,” I said as I turned and drew the plastic veil aside.
The smell that came wafting out into the hall was enough to make my stomach turn. I’d been the one to request that the room be sealed off without cleaning, to give me a better idea of what I was dealing with. Suddenly, I thought I might regret that decision.
Streaks of long-dried blood warred with cheerful pastels for ownership of the walls inside the maternity ward. Most of it was red, although there were a few streaks of green, purple, and even shiny-clear breaking up the crimson monotony. Patches of the original cartoon murals showed through the gore, representing a cartoon cryptid wonderland, with dozens of happy cryptid and human children gamboling through a paradise of acceptance that hadn’t existed in millennia, if it ever existed at all. Sarah blanched.
“Verity . . .”
“I know.” Even the thickest splotches of blood had been given time to dry. I touched one, and it flaked away on my fingertips. “If the pattern holds, it’s still nearby.”
“Oh, goody. Have I mentioned recently how much I hate it when you say things like that?” Sarah glanced nervously around. “I’m not picking up on any other minds in this room. We’re alone in here.”
“That’s a start.” There was a closed door on the far wall. I pulled the pistol from the back of my jeans, holding it in front of me as I walked cautiously forward. “Stay where you are.”
“You don’t need to tell me twice,” said Sarah.
The door swung gently open when I twisted the knob, revealing the darker, seemingly empty room beyond. I squinted into the gloom, seeing nothing but a few sheet-draped tables and what looked like an old-style apothecary’s cabinet. My flashlight beam bounced off the glass, refracting into the room where Sarah and I stood.
“Looks like it’s all clear,” I said, starting to turn back to Sarah. “We should keep on movi—”
Something roughly the size of a Golden Retriever—assuming Golden Retrievers had massive, batlike wings—burst out of the dark behind the door and soared into the room, shrieking loudly. Sarah added her own screaming to the din, ducking and scrambling to get under one of the gore-soaked tables. I stopped worrying about her as soon as she was out of sight. The creature would forget she was there almost instantly, if it had managed to notice her in the first place. The cuckoo: nature’s ultimate stealth predator, and also, when necessary, nature’s ultimate coward.
The creature continued its flight across the room, giving me time to take solid aim on the space between its wings, and get a good enough view to make a hopefully accurate guess at what it was. It could have been your average attractive older Filipino woman, assuming you liked your attractive older women with wings, claws, fangs, and—oh, right—nothing below the navel. Where her lower body should have been was only a thin, pulsing layer of skin, providing me with a nauseatingly clear view of her internal organs.
My brother owed me five bucks. When I’d described the thing that was supposedly attacking downtown maternity wards to him over the phone, he’d barely paused before saying, “There’s no way you’re dealing with a manananggal. They’re not native to the region.” Well, if the thing that was flying around the room wasn’t a manananggal, nature was even crueler than I’d originally thought.
“Hey, ugly!” I shouted, and fired. Shrieking, the manananggal hit the wall, using her momentum to flip herself around and start coming back toward me. I fired twice more. As far as I could tell, I hit her both times. It didn’t slow her down one bit. I dove to the side just as she sliced through the air where I’d been standing, that unearthly shriek issuing from her throat the entire time.
“I fucking hate things that can’t be killed,” I muttered, rolling back to my feet. The manananggal was coming back for another pass. That was, in a messed-up kind of way, a good thing. Mentally, I shouted, Sarah! Go find her legs!
My cousin stuck her head out from under the table, eyes wide. You’re kidding, right? came the telepathic demand.
No! Hurry! I fired at the manananggal again, keeping her attention on me. It wasn’t hard to do. Most things focus on the person with the gun.
I hate you, said Sarah, and slid out from under the table, using the sound of gunfire and screaming to cover her as she slipped through the open doorway, into the dark beyond.
* * *
The manananggal are native to the Philippines, where they live disguised among the human population, using them for shelter and sustenance at the same time. They spend the days looking just like everyone else. It’s only when the sun goes down that they open their wings and separate their torsos from their lower bodies. That’s when they fly into the night, looking for prey. Even that could be forgiven—humanity has made peace with stranger things—if it weren’t for what they prey on.
Infants, both newly-born and just about to be born. The manananggal will also feed on the mothers, but only if they’re still carrying or have given birth within the last twenty-four hours. Weak prey. Innocent prey. Prey that, in this modern world, is conveniently herded into maternity wards and hospital beds, making it easy for the manananggal to come in and eat its fill. As this one had been doing, moving in a rough circle through the local maternity wards, slaughtering humans and cryptids with equal abandon.
She’d been getting sloppier, and her kills had been getting more obvious. That was a bad sign. That meant the manananggal was getting ready to find a mate and make a nest . . . and that was something I couldn’t allow to happen.
I’m a cryptozoologist. It’s my job to protect the monsters of the world. But when those monsters become too dangerous to be allowed to roam free, I’m also a hunter. I don’t enjoy that side of my work. That doesn’t mean I get to stop doing it.
The manananggal seemed to realize that her tactics weren’t getting her anywhere. With a ringing scream, she hit the wall again, and then turned to fly straight at me, her arms held out in front of her as she went for a chokehold. I ducked. Not fast enough. Her claws raked across the top of my left bicep, slicing through the fabric of my shirt and down into my flesh. I couldn’t bite back my yelp of pain, which seemed to delight the manananggal; her scream became a cackle as she flew past me, flipped around, and came back for another strike.
I put two bullets into her throat. That barely slowed her down . . . but it slowed her enough for me to get out of her path. She slammed into the wall, hard. I tensed, expecting another pass. It never came. Instead, her wings thrashed once, twice, and she sank to the floor in a glassy-eyed heap, brackish blood oozing from the gunshot wounds peppering her body.
Breathing shallowly, I moved toward the body. She didn’t move. I prodded her with the toe of my shoe. She didn’t move. I shot her three more times, just to be sure. (Saving ammunition is for other people. People who aren’t bleeding.) She didn’t move.
“I hate you,” announced Sarah from the doorway behind me.
I turned. She held up the canister of garlic salt I’d ordered her to bring, turning it upside-down to show that it was empty.
“Legs are toast,” she said. “As soon as I poured this stuff down her feeding tube, the lower body collapsed.”
“Oh. Good. That’s a note for the field guide.” I touched my wounded arm gingerly. “This stings. Do you remember anything about manananggal being venomous?”
Sarah grimaced. “How about we ask the nurse?”
“Good idea,” I said, and let her take my arm and lead me away from the fallen manananggal, and the remains of the last infants she would ever slaughter.
This is how I spend my Saturday nights. And sadly, these are the nights I feel are most successful.
Midnight Blue Light Special © Seanan McGuire 2013