Carlos Delacruz is one of the New York Council of the Dead’s most unusual agents—an inbetweener, partially resurrected from a death he barely recalls suffering, after a life that’s missing from his memory. He thinks he is one of a kind—until he encounters other entities walking the fine line between life and death.
One inbetweener is a sorcerer. He’s summoned a horde of implike ngks capable of eliminating spirits, and they’re spreading through the city like a plague. They’ve already taken out some of NYCOD’s finest, leaving Carlos desperate to stop their master before he opens up the entrada to the Underworld—which would destroy the balance between the living and the dead. But in uncovering this man’s identity, Carlos confronts the truth of his own life—and death.
Daniel José Older’s Half-Resurrection Blues is the first Bone Street Rumba novel, a new urban fantasy series publishing January 6th from Roc!
It’s just past eleven PM on December 31 – that dizzy in-between time when we’re not quite here but not yet there – and hip young white kids crowd the trendy streets of Park Slope, Brooklyn. Their pockmarked faces flash a theatrical array of expressions, everything from regret to ecstasy to total abandon, but I’m not fooled: they’re bored out of their minds. I can tell because I’m dead – well, partially dead anyway, and when you straddle a fine line like the one between life and death – let’s just say, you can tell certain things about people.
I dip into a brightly lit tobacco store for some Malagueñas and a pocket-sized rum. The rum goes into my flask and one of the Malagueñas goes in my mouth. I light it, walk back out to the street and weave through the crowds. When I move quickly, no one notices my strange gait or the long wooden cane I use to favor my right leg. I’ve gotten the flow down so smooth I almost glide along towards the milky darkness of Prospect Park. There’s too much information here in the streets – each passing body gives up a whole symphony of smells and memories and genetics. It can help pass the time if you’re bored, but tonight, I’m far from bored.
Tonight I am hunting.
Music wafts out of a bar across the street – a kind of watery blues that evokes dentists’ waiting rooms. The hipsters roam up and down the block in packs, playing out a whole mess of different daytime drama plotlines. There’s a few black and brown folks around but they’re mostly staying out of the way. And me? I’m a grayish off-brown – a neither-here-nor-there color that matches my condition. It would be a jarring skin tone to notice, but I tend to just blend in. That’s fine with me. Whatever it is that’s been causing all this static is out there tonight, I’m sure of it. The more I can disappear the more chance I have of catching them.
It’s been two weeks now. Two weeks of a vague and irritating twinge crawling up my spine every time I get near the crest of Flatbush Ave. I’ve been walking circles around that area like an idiot, trying to sniff out the source. Stood for hours beneath the big archway with its soldiers’ frozen battle cries and elaborate stonework; closed my eyes and just listened, feeling all the damn spiritual vibrations ricocheting across Brooklyn. Major throughways shoot off towards Flatbush and into Crown Heights but I narrowed it down to some intdedamnterminate spot in the Slope.
When I took it to my icy superiors at the New York Council Of the Dead, they nodded their old fully dead heads and turned silently in on themselves to conference. A few hours later they called me back in. Because I’m an inbetweener, and the only one anyone knows of at that, the dead turn to me when something is askew between them and the living. Usually, it’s some mundane shit — Clean up work. But every once in a while it gets really hairy, and that’s when I go hunting. These are the times when I forget that I was ever even dead. Whatever shadow of life or humanity pertains to me — I know God put me on this fine planet to hunt.
Plus I’m good at it.
But the Council was all kinds of vague about this one. No explanation, just a photo of a man slid across the table with icy fingers. We believe this is the source, Carlos. His name is Trevor Brass. Do your thing.
An icy pause. Eliminate him.
And me: “Care to elucidate further?”
And them: Nope.
And what can really be said to that? They’re dead. They don’t have to elucidate shit. I don’t mind though. Makes things more interesting.
Oh, and protect the entrada at all costs.
The dead are good for coming up with some last minute oh-and-by-the-way type shit. Protect the entrada. An entrada is an entrance to the underworld. There’s only a couple scattered around the city and they’re supposed to be well guarded by a team of fully dead COD soulcatchers and impossible to get through, all of that, but really, it happens. Soulcatchers have other things to do, turns out, then stand around flickering doors to Hell. Protocols tighten and then slack again. The particular entrada they’re referring to is in a shady grove in the middle of Prospect Park, not at all far from all this mess. It’s not hard to imagine whatever this grinning fellow in the picture is up to has something to do with breaching through. How they expected me to simultaneously track the dude down and keep him from getting to the entrada is another question, but that’s not their concern. The Council tosses whatever garbled up mandate they’ve regurgitated from their eyes in the field and it’s on me to sort out through the chaos.
So I nodded, pocketed the picture and walked out the door.
I swig on my flask and head for the park. I want to check on the entrada and that swath of urban wilderness is the only place I can clear my head. I’d forgotten that this tremendous pockmarked flock of New Year’s revelers would be here, jamming up all my otherworldly insights. A ponytail guy plows through the crowd to find somewhere to puke his guts out; I swerve out the way just in time. He’s wearing too much aftershave and looks like he spent three hours trying to make his hair look that carelessly tussled.
Then I see my mark. He’s standing perfectly still in the middle of all that hootenanny, laughing his ass off. He’s caramel-colored but still somehow pale gray like an overcast day. He’s got long, perfectly kept locks reaching all the way down his back and a goatee so carefully trimmed it might be painted on. His big frame rocks with laughter. Unquestionably, the cat is dealing with some supernatural…issues. Layers of grief, anxiety and fanaticism swirl around him like ripples in a pond; they’re peppered with a distinct aroma of, what’s that? Ah, yes: guilt. And yet he’s chuckling madly.
That’s when it hits me: the guy’s not dead. Here I was, assuming that because the NYCOD brought me in, I’d automatically have another faded shroud on my hands, some errant phantom trying to make it back or otherwise disturb the delicate balance of life and death. But this fellow isn’t faded or translucent. He’s breathing. His memories aren’t closed books the way dead memories are. And yet, by the look of things, he’s not fully alive either. I squint through the crowd at him, not even trying to conceal my intentions anymore.
He is like me.
Another inbetweener – and not just one of these half-formed, not-quite-here purgatorious mo’fos: Trevor is full-fledged flesh and blood alive and dead at the same time, both and neither.
I duck into the outdoor entrance area of another bar. The bouncer shoots me a look that says why the fuck you movin’ so fast, cripple? I ignore it, tug on the Malagueña and observe my prey. The smoke eases me into the excitement of the hunt. He is feisty, this one. I narrow my eyes. Just like the living, this man’s head is full of plans – a map that keeps drawing and redrawing itself, a checklist, an incomplete letter. There’s something else too: a solid chunk of his subconscious attention lingers on a scrap of thick paper in his pocket, probably some piece of whatever diabolical plot he’s enmeshed in. He has all the makings of someone up to no good, and yet, I can’t help but feel drawn to this laughing wraith. For all his mysterious schemes and whatever chaos he’s trying to let loose on my city, he’s having a good time, and after all, it is New Year’s Eve.
Anyway, I’ve never met anybody like me before, so instead of just ending him right then and there I walk up and offer the dude one of my Malagueñas. Just like that. The very idea of doing this is so ridiculous that it shudders through me like the tickle of an invisible hand, and pretty soon we’re both standing there smoking away and laughing like idiots.
We’re definitely in the same curious predicament, but unlike me, Trevor’s not at all concerned with blending in. In fact, he’s determined to stand out. “Whaddup, douche bags and douche baguettes?” he hollers at the crowd. I’m mortified and fascinated at the same time. A few passing revelers chuckle but most ignore him. A blond lady rolls her eyes as if she’s being hit on for like the four hundredth time tonight. “Why so serious?” Trevor yells into the sky. I found the one other being like me in the universe and he is a total jackass.
Trevor turns to me, his face suddenly sharp, and says: “It’s time. Let’s go.” His glare is penetrating and reveals nothing. A total blank.
We move quickly, with purpose. He either already knows I’m extraordinarily agile or he didn’t even notice the cane. I’m dodging a hodgepodge of hipsters and homeless rich kids, keeping my eyes on Trevor’s paisley cap bobbing up ahead. He’s still laughing and calling people douche bags and I have no idea whether I’m giving chase or being led into a trap. Or both.
“What’s your name, man?” I slur, playing up the rum on my breath.
He eyes me and then says, “Trevor.”
“Carlos,” I say and I realize with a start that he may well be reading right through every move I make just like I’m reading through each of his. The shock of this makes me feel momentarily naked; I quickly gather myself and cobble back the wall of deceit. I have never dealt with someone like me before.
“Why so serious?” Trevor says again, this time at me. He’s still laughing.
“Not at all,” I say. Then I swig from my flask and he swigs from his.
He’s meeting someone. The realization comes clear like a whisper inside my head, and I can’t help but wonder if the same voice is murmuring he’s onto you in his.
We break from the crowd, cut a sharp right on Third Street and end up beneath an ancient willow tree leaning out of Prospect Park. The wide avenue is deserted except for a few loping stragglers from the party on Seventh. It’s a cool night. The light rain isn’t falling so much as hovering in the air around us in a teasing little cumulus.
“This is the year, people!” Trevor yells at no one in particular. “The time she has come! People get ready!” He kicks an empty beer bottle into a nearby bush, upsetting a family of night birds. I should just kill him now; that static filling the air hints at untold horrors. Also, I have no idea how hard he’ll be to take down. I don’t even know if I can fully die again. I’m bracing myself to make my move when a few figures work their way through the shadowy park
“That you, broham?” one of them calls out as they get close. Broham? Is that Trevor’s real name? I try to make myself as unnoticeable as possible, but we’re a party of two, and we’re both inbetweeners. “Who’s the dude, man? Thought this was a secret and shit.”
“It’s cool, Brad,” says Trevor or Broham, or whoever my new friend/prey is. “He’s with me.” No one’s ever said that about me. I’m flattered and repulsed at the same time.
Brad is tall and thick. His blond hair is close cropped in a military buzz cut. Of the crew behind him, three are basically Brad clones with different color hair, one is an Asian Brad and another little guy is definitely Indian/Pakistani or maybe Puerto Rican. Or half-Black. Whatever he is, he gets randomly searched every time he’s within twenty feet of an airport. Finally, there’s a hipster – the cats are everywhere – looking extraordinarily out of place and awkward.
“Okay bros, let’s do this thing,” Brad says. Shady supernatural shenanigans in the Slope and it involves a bunch of frat boys? Curiouser and curiouser.
We make our way along the edge of the park. One of the Brads falls into place beside me. “Michael,” he says, extending an awkward hand as I amble along.
“Carlos,” I say, nodding, but not touching his hand. People tend to notice how chilly and dry my skin is. And I tend to pick up way too much information about folks when we touch. Sometimes, it’s better not to know.
Michael’s forced smile fades. “Are you going to, you know, help show us, uh, the other side?”
“Whose big idea was this, Michael?”
“Well, David really,” Michael nods towards the skinny hipster. “He gathered us together late one night at his house. He’s Brad’s homey, I don’t really know him that well. Anyway, he said he had a big opportunity, a chance for us to see things no one else had seen. But only if we could be trusted, right?”
“Said he’d met this dude, no name or nothing, just this dude, and that he was going to take us to, you know: the other side.”
I make an ambivalent half-grunt and Michael frowns, like maybe he revealed too much. He quickens his pace to catch up with the others. Darkened Victorians peek out from behind swaying trees across the street.
When we reach the wide-open roundabout at the entrance to Prospect Park, flickers of nervousness flair up from Trevor. Whatever it is he has planned, we’re getting dangerously close to it. I wonder if these frat boys are unknowingly lining up to be the main course of some ritual sacrifice. Trevor seems just erratic and volatile enough to try and pull off such a stunt. But then, a few flatheads and a hipster getting glazed wouldn’t warrant so much concern from the Council Of the Dead – and they certainly wouldn’t waste my time with it. Trevor checks his watch and then looks into the misty night. It’s eight minutes to midnight. I try to tune into the gathering storm of excitement that’s about to explode all over the city, but it’s just a faint glimmer to me.
We enter the park, move quickly through the fresh smelling darkness. The Brads and David fall into a nervous silence. Trevor is a fortress — he gives up nothing to me, so I let my thoughts chase the ridiculous mini-dramas and power plays between our companions. We’re moving towards the entrada and of course, the timing is perfect: entradas are extra accessibly to the non-dead at midnight, and this midnight in particular the air would be even more charged with culminating spiritual energy. The majority of Brooklyn’s ancestral souls are out and about tonight, enjoying their own morbid festivities. You can almost taste the bursting molecules in the air.
As if to confirm my suspicions, we turn off the main road and duck down a narrow path through the trees. But what would an inbetweener be doing with a bunch of college kids at an entrance to the Underworld? This is only the beginning, the voice that knows things whispers. You who are neither here nor there keep the secrets of both worlds. And secrets are a valuable commodity. My man has fashioned himself into a traitorous tour guide of the afterlife. I close my eyes and imagine the Land of the Dead overrun by fat pasty tourists, thousands of bubbly Brads and Bradettes, snapping pictures and sipping frappuccino-whatevers. Crap. I really shoulda taken him when it was simple. Now, we’ve arrived; the entrada is a gaping void beneath drooping tree branches. It’s not black, it’s just emptiness. The air is crisp with new rain and a murmuring breeze. If Trevor touches that void, it’s game over — he’ll disappear into a relentless, hazy maze of wandering souls. David and the frat boys would be shit outta luck, their magical romp through the Underworld cancelled, but Trevor would be safe from my expert problem solving hands.
I push my way up through the crowd of Brads. With about ten feet to go before the entrada, Trevor makes a break for it. My elbows shoot out in either direction, crack into meaty midsections, splinter ribs. With a little added encouragement from my shoulders, the home team collapses to either side of me and I sprint forward in a ferocious, lopsided lunge, unsheathing the blade from my cane as I go. It leaves my hand like a bullet. For a second, all anyone hears is that terrible whiz of steel cutting through air, and then the even more terrible renting flesh. That sound means I win, but for once it doesn’t feel so good to win. Trevor collapses heavily, an arm’s length from the entrada.
Without breaking stride, I pull my blade from Trevor’s flesh and launch back towards the college boys, cutting the air and hollering gibberish at the top of my lungs. They leave in a hurry, limping and carrying each other along like the good guys in war movies. I return to Trevor, who’s bleeding out quickly. If he can die, I can die. It’s a sobering thought. I have so many questions I don’t even know where to begin, and his life force is fading fast. He makes like he’s about to speak but just gurgles. All of his attention, all of his waning energy is focused back on that little scrap of something in his pocket, but his eyes stare right into mine.
He knows I can read him. He’s pointing it out to me.
I gingerly reach into his pocket and retrieve what turns out to be a photograph of a girl.
I can’t remember the last time I said this, maybe I’ve never said it, but this chick is fine as hell. Not just fine though – there’s something about her gaze, the way she holds her chin, the shadow of her collar bone, that makes me want to find her and tell her everything, everything. It’s just a silly snapshot. Her smile is genuine but grudging, like whoever took the picture insisted she do it. Her head’s cocked just a little to the side and something in her eyes just says I get it, Carlos. C’mere and talk to me and then let’s make love. Looks like she’s in a park, maybe even this one; a few trees are scattered in the scenery behind her.
“Sister,” Trevor gurgles and I quickly wipe the hungry glow off my face. “She is…caught up in this too…” When he says this, his head jerks towards the shimmering emptiness beside us.
“This what, man? What is this?”
“Closing the gap,” Trevor whispers. “The living and the dead…don’t have to be so far apart. Like…” he takes a deep, death-rattled breath.
I manage to hide my impatience for about three seconds. “Like what?”
“…like us. You and me and…” Another excruciating pause. “Sasha.”
Sasha. The hand holding the picture feels like it’s on fire. I raise it up to his face. “Sasha,” I say, failing to disguise the hope in my voice. “She’s like us? She’s in-between?”
I almost break into a dance when Trevor nods his head. Suddenly the park seems very luminous and beautiful at this hour. The night birds are singing, and somewhere, a few blocks away, Park Slope rocks to the New Year’s revelry of two thousand wealthy white kids.
“Please,” Trevor is saying when I return from my reverie, “find Sasha. Keep her safe…” Done. No problem. How else can I help you today, sir? “…from the Council.”
“Uh…” I say, trying to slow my thoughts. “City Council?” Did you know it’s possible to really irritate a dying person? Even an already mostly dead dying person. I don’t recommend it though. Trevor looks like he’s thinking about using the last of his life force to make a grab for my cane-blade and cut some sense into me. “Right, right,” I say quickly, “The Council Of the Dead.” He nods. “New York City Chapter.” My bosses. Surely he must know this. But whatever Trevor does or doesn’t know is quickly becoming a non-issue. He gurgles again, flinches and then relaxes as death completes its finishing touches.
At least he won’t have far to travel.
After gently placing Trevor’s body into the entrada, I wander aimlessly around the park and work my way through the whole pack of Malagueñas and all of my rum. There’s too many thoughts in my head right now, if I venture out into the city it’ll mean instant input overload. The living and the dead don’t have to be so far apart, Trevor had said. Why are folks always so cryptic right before they croak? Like us. There’s an us. All I’ve ever known of the afterlife has been the rigid bureaucracy of the Council, and at first there had been relief from the cold disregard of the living. And then I just made friends with being the lone intermediary between the two, but now…When the Council’s icy fingers slide the photo of Sasha’s wry smile and sleepy eyes across the table to me, I will nod my head like I always do. Then I will find her. I will honor the dying wish of her brother who I murdered and protect her from myself. And then I will ask her out.
Excerpted from Half-Resurrection Blues © Daniel José Older, 2015