Julie is desperate for a quick career boost to break the dead-end grind, but her pleas draw the attention of an eldritch god…
We’re thrilled to share the cover and preview an excerpt from The Dead Take the A Train, a dark story cowritten by Richard Kadrey & Cassandra Khaw—forthcoming on October 3, 2023 from Nightfire Books.
Bestselling authors Richard Kadrey and Cassandra Khaw have teamed up to deliver a dark new story with magic, monsters, and mayhem, perfect for fans of Neil Gaiman and Joe Hill.
Julie Crews is a coked-up, burnt-out thirty-something who packs a lot of magic into her small body. She’s been trying to establish herself in the NYC magic scene, and she’ll work the most gruesome gigs to claw her way to the top.
Julie is desperate for a quick career boost to break the dead-end grind, but her pleas draw the attention of an eldritch god who is hungry for revenge. Her power grab sets off a deadly chain of events that puts her closest friends—and the entire world—directly in the path of annihilation.
The first explosive adventure in the Carrion City Duology, The Dead Take the A Train fuses Khaw’s cosmic horror and Kadrey’s gritty fantasy into a full-throttle thrill ride straight into New York’s magical underbelly.
Richard Kadrey is the New York Times bestselling author of the Sandman Slim supernatural noir series. Sandman Slim was included in Amazon’s “100 Science Fiction & Fantasy Books to Read in a Lifetime,” and is in production as a feature film. Some of Kadrey’s other books include The Grand Dark, The Everything Box, King Bullet, and ButcherBird. In comics, he’s written for Heavy Metal, Lucifer, and Hellblazer.
Cassandra Khaw is an award-winning game writer, and former scriptwriter at Ubisoft Montreal. Khaw’s work can be found in places like Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and Tor.com. Khaw’s first original novella, Hammers on Bone, was a British Fantasy award and Locus award finalist, and their novella, Nothing But Blackened Teeth, is published by Nightfire.
There were few things in life Julie enjoyed more than bachelorette parties. It was, by design, one of those rare events where women weren’t just permitted but encouraged to throw off their inhibitions. No matter the amount of booze or the quantity of strippers, the drugs or the homoerotic shenanigans, the shrieking, the woo-girling, the balloon penises, the everything, it was all waved away as girls being girls, a bacchanal of the stupid, like oblations for a twenty-first century neon Dionysus.
Julie really liked bachelorette parties which, in part, was why she was so pissed.
“Okay. There are two ways we can do this. My way, or —”
“Please don’t fucking say it,” the thing slurred.
“—the wrong way.”
Blood gouted from the stump of the bride-to-be’s raised arm: a rinse of red syrup, far thicker than it should have been, with fist-size clots and nearly black. The other reason all this needled Julie so much was she liked the Flatiron district speakeasy, liked its pressed tin ceiling, the expensive slouch of its furnishings, loved the gorgeous brass bathtub which stood as its marquee attraction and was now filling with the putrid slurry. Sure, this wasn’t anywhere she had cause to visit save once an actual paycheck. But it was her spot for feigning any claim to pedigree.
And the demon was fucking it up.
And her toes, through the cut-out velveteen heels she’d borrowed from poor Saint Joan—God rest their friendship—were getting wet.
No. Not wet, Julie corrected herself.
From the bleeding stump, a cephalopodic eye glared at Julie. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Julie could see a tongue flicker in its oblong pupil and a rime of teeth inside the dark—teeth so small they looked like salt grains in the dim bronze lighting.
“You’re in possession of a human body.”
“I am loaning it.”
“Does she know she’s on loan?”
The woman gibbered, eyes rolled back to the whites. Julie suspected she was beautiful when not drenched in gore, rictused face sheened in sweat, tongue lolling. She was runway-scrawny and cornfed-white. Legs for days. Delicate ankles, ankles now hooked around Julie’s waist. Her knees banged on the rim of the bathtub. Taffeta was everywhere, soaked through with red. She — the fuck was her name? Ally? Alice? Some permutation of that, Julie’s sure —moaned, soft and low and terrified.
“No,” said the demon, sullen.
“In that case, it sounds like, what’s the fucking word for it—?”
“No. Wait. That’s when you have something like—hold on. ” A frisson of tumors ran circuits under the skin of the bride’s pale throat. Up and down. Up and down. Julie memorized the intervals, the specific count of the pebbling, not yet ready to commit to the prospect it might matter, but demons liked routines. It had to mean something. “No. I’m right. Criminal possession is when you are in possession of items or property prohibited by law.”
“And the law says,” Julie interrupted. “You don’t fucking borrow a human body unless you have consent.”
“So what’s it going to be, asshole? My way or the wrong way?”
There was no answer save for a wet slorp of tissue receding into muscle. The bride sagged, head ricocheting off the edge of the bathtub, the resulting clang eliciting from Julie both a wince and a muttered, “Fuck.” as she fumbled for her oyster knife. It embarrassed Julie sometimes how makeshift her gear was, what with the armories at the disposal of her peers. The stash her ex possessed—fucking Tyler, that charmed prick—had her wanting to pledge to God, any god, so long as it came with a blessing of arms.
But whatever got the job done.
The oyster knife was her latest acquisition: a pretty thing with a voluptuous ebony grip, impossible to differentiate from any other knife in its category save for the faint scabbing of rust along the blade. Under a microscope, the discoloration would be revealed as runic sigils, nothing prescribable to human invention, not unless they did business with Julie’s very specific supplier.
She drove the blade hard into the bride’s elbow, and torqued downwards, shearing a curl of flesh from the woman’s forearm, hoping to spoon the demon out or, better yet, kill the fucker. (Her fee would require re-negotiation, but convenience always came at a cost. Apartment hunting in Manhattan taught her that early.)
As her knife peeled flesh, the room erupted again in screams. Girls ran for the door, slamming into Julie’s wards. Some slipped on the bodily fluids smeared over the floor as they went, and Julie heard people scrabbling to get up, trying, failing— nails and stiletto heels clacking on the tiles, unable to find purchase. She heard a few of the party girls throwing up again. Not that she blamed them. The bride-to-be’s body held an absolute library of stenches and with half the speakeasy’s guests dead, everyone was receiving an education in charnel perfumery.
Julie stared at the flayed tract of arm in her grip.
She’d missed the demon and found something else.
Eyes, heavily lashed, the same pastel blue of the bride’s own irises, squinted up at her, neatly encysted amid the muscle fibres. They blinked in the glare of the club’s lighting. Scrunching, visibly upset at their exposure.
“What the fuck?” Julie breathed.
Those were human eyes, nothing at all like the demon’s, and there were hundreds of them. Julie wondered how many more laid hidden, asleep and dreaming, eggs in an egg carton. And she thought about the way the demon had travelled the bride’s throat. Like a nervous tic. Like a salmon moving along, fertilizing eggs as it went, and—
“What the fuck?” she said again, this time with a note of rising anger. “You turned her into a nursery?”
The eye hatched through the divot of the bride’s right collar bone.
“I didn’t start this.”
“You’re clearly a part of this.”
“Yes, but I didn’t start it.”
“Who cares?” Julie hoisted up the bride’s arm, stabbed a finger at the wound she’d cored out. “This is gross.”
“It’s part of our biological cycle.”
“You’re not biological!”
The screaming worsened. Julie shot a furious look behind her.
“Shut. Up. I am talking here.”
The clamour lowered to a few terrified whispers, then disappeared.
If any of Julie’s youthful illusions had survived her twenties, they were gone now, eaten alive by the realization in six months, she’d be thirty-one, still with nothing to show but liver damage, debt, and discount frozen dinners in a ice box that worked only half the year. She knew what she excelled in and what she did not, and the former was a category that did not include getting a room of screaming, whimpering, gin-soaked girls to shut up with such force and completeness.
“What did you do to my daughter’s hand?”
Julie turned to the source of the question. She was an older white woman, in her fifties, petite frame scaled in lace, with a pencil skirt slitting up to a hip bone. Leather gloves over thin hands, the material polished to a shine. She wore fishnets, stripper pumps, and to Julie’s senses, she was a cut-out paper doll of nothing at all.
“What the fuck?” said Julie.
Her hair was blonde, brilliantined: a gamine look that flattered her softly creased features.
“You cut off her hand.”
“I didn’t.” Julie had, in fact, not. “But what I want to know is who the fuck are you?” She frowned. “And more importantly, what the fuck are you?”
The woman sighed like someone used to sighing when she didn’t get her way immediately. “My name is Marie Betancourt. I’m the mother of the bride.”
Julie raked a look down the new arrival.
Had the woman been in the restroom? Ensconced in a booth with a much younger man? At the bar, commiserating with other adults? Had Julie, doing lines with the bachelorette party, somehow failed to notice the woman? No. That didn’t make sense. Not with that aura of Marie’s or rather the lack thereof, the physicality of said void possessing the same gravitational pull as the site of a missing tooth. No, no way some cheap drugs could occlude such weirdness from notice.
“Monster of the bride, you mean,” said Julie.
Marie shrugged. Her accent was New England old money and a thread of something else, something she’d tried hard to gore out of her voice. “I don’t care about your definitions. What I want to know is what you did to my daughter’s hand.”
“What your family hired me to do.”
“We didn’t hire you to disfigure my child.”
“Sometimes,” said Julie, wiping blood from her cheek with the back of her hand. “Shit happens.”
Julie gave the room a quick once-over, taking note of how the girls had clumped along one wall, and the speakeasy staff were again in view, arrayed behind the bar. Each and every one of them had on the same posture, the same lights-on-but-no-one’s-home stare. So, Marie worked magic too. But what kind? With the woman’s old money pedigree, Julie’s first guess was satanic. She rescinded the thought a moment later. The anarchic catechisms of the Church of Satan didn’t seem like they’d fly with someone from the suburban oligarchy. Something darker, then. Much darker.
The woman said, “Whatever the case might be, get him out of my daughter and then we will re-negotiate your fee. You did an ungodly amount of damage to my poor girl, and—”
“Wait, wait, wait. Let me get this straight? Did you say ‘him’? Specifically?”
“I did,” said Marie, crossing her arms.
“Just ‘him’?” said Julie. “There are eggs in here, Marie.”
Her voice was even. “Those are meant to be there.”
“Like fuck they are.”
Marie’s expression creped. “Did you not read the contract you were sent? I thought it was very clear. We need him out. Just. Him. Why is that so hard to understand?”
“Because your daughter is infested with—with— I don’t even know what the hell they are but I sure as hell know I’d scoop them out with a teaspoon if they were inside me and I didn’t have anything else to claw them out with.”
“For god’s sake, do what you’re paid to do and stop talking so much.”
It hit her then. Oh, Julie thought, as the pieces mosaiced into place.
“It’s like when the neighbor’s shelter mutt won’t stop trying to mount your pedigree poodle, isn’t it? You’re pissed because it’s not the right dog. You—you’re breeding something in there. You’re using your daughter as an incubator.”
“Perhaps.” And there was the snap, the facade popped. “All right. Yes. One girl in every generation is honored as the Womb, and I’ll be damned if my daughter will breed our family a litter of rejects.”
“Hey,” said the demon.
Both Julie and Marie ignored it.
“Is she going to survive this?” said Julie, suddenly tired.
Marie pinched the bridge of her nose.
“Being the goddamn Womb.”
“Maybe,” said Marie. “And if she doesn’t, a part of her will live on in some way.”
Julie stared down at the bride coddled like an egg herself in the bathtub, limbs everywhere, and she felt pity: a sharp, wretched twang of sympathy. She’d been impressed with how hard the bride had gone, how much she’d drank, the way she kept up with Julie, snorting coke and dropping ecstasy, like it was nothing, like someone intent on living out her last day of being free.
“Jesus, you big money fucks can’t help being garbage, can you? She knew she wouldn’t make it. Your daughter knew. That’s why she went from zero to crazy the moment she got here.” Julie smoothed the lank blonde hair from the bride’s face. Under her fingers, the woman’s skin burned. “Did she even consent to this? Was she awake when you got her pregnant with… whatever the hell this is?”
“She consented to the rite,” said Marie with care, the precision of her statement more telling than a confession. “As for the drugs, she’d always had a problem with them. It’s why we were so pleased when she was made the new Womb. Finally, her useless existence was going to amount to something.”
“This is your daughter you’re talking about.”
Marie shrugged. “And none of this is your problem. I—dammnit, he’s trying to find the rest of her eggs. Get rid of it now, or you’re not getting paid.”
The right thing to do, Julie knew, was to say no. The right thing was to tell Marie to fuck herself, save the girl, walk away, and burn the speakeasy down behind them. But the problem with the right thing was it didn’t keep the lights on.
“Stay out of my way, old lady.”
Julie spat a spell so filthy it leaked black ichor over her chin. Her jaw whined with the magic. It thumped through her skull, and up along every tooth, until Julie’s head was a haze of shrapnel and static. Some people had it easy: they carried spells like a girl’s trust in her mother, kept them chambered with no effort whatsoever. Julie wasn’t one of them. She needed them stitched through the fatty part just under her skin. Otherwise, they washed away.
As the glyph-bindings snapped, one after another, wire fluttering from her wrists, Julie found her anger burning even hotter. She couldn’t believe it. Here she was, unbuttoning the barbs of a spell from her skin and for what? The cable bill, last month’s rent, a half-decent dinner if she skimmed from the first. Was she really stooping this fucking low?
The spell burrowed into the bride’s shoulder, cauterizing the flesh as it wormed inside, leaving an inch-wide hole in its wake, and for a second, as the pain in her head blurred her vision into an oily smear, Julie thought she saw the meaty curl of a slug’s tail flick and vanish into the wound. She knuckled the tears from her eyes, leaning back, tongue rinded with a sugar coating of something sour-sweet. As she did, the bride jackknifed up, as though impaled on a hook scythed through her diaphragm, and she banshee screamed.
Loud enough to make Julie clap her hands over her ears. Hard enough that Julie heard the women’s larynx tear: the screaming becoming gravelled, turning wet. Her wailing didn’t stop as convulsions billowed through her. The bride screamed and she would not stop.
Until, with a damp burst—
Her throat split. From the vulvic-like opening, the demon fell, splashing into the puddled gore at Julie’s feet. It resembled a liver fringed with blue-red nerves and overgrown with tumors: little cauliflower protrusions, each of which, at its puckered heart, contained an eye gone dead and filmed with pus. The sight brought her no pleasure. At most, she felt an embarrassed relief. She was glad the sorry affair was over and sorry about her involvement, and the fact she was both these things pissed her off.
The bride’s throat closed and she swooned again, but this time, Julie caught her before her head could bounce on the tub’s copper rim, held her suspended like the two were modelling for a painting: a hand under the small of the bride’s back, the other beneath the bowl of her skull.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“Finally,” said Marie. “You should have pulled that thing out when it started. If you had, we wouldn’t have wasted so much time.”
Julie set the bride down into the bathtub, arranging her hands so she looked like a saint laid out for display. Her expression was beatific, no longer strained. At rest, if not for long, not with her mother waiting.
“That spell cost way more than you were paying me.”
“You should have negotiated your costs into your original fee, then.”
“Yeah, yeah. Fucking pay me.”
Marie sprayed her with a roll of bills.
“The fuck. Was that. For.”
Julie collected the money and counted out the blood-stained stack, once and then again, irritation kindling. She had hoped for a different outcome but it was as she thought.
“This isn’t what we agreed on.”
It wasn’t even close. Julie suspected Marie carried rolls of fuck-you money, meant for use in these exact circumstances. Enough that she didn’t look like a crook, but never enough to actually pay up. They were as much statement as her lacquered finger-wave hair, her carriage, her accent and the precision of her diction. Meant to show the gulf between Marie and the rest of the world. Here she stood on a rung next to the stars and down below was everyone else, rutting in the mud.
“Be glad you’re even getting paid. You fucking mutilated my girl.”
Julie donned a sunny grin.
“Are you sure this is all you have for me?”
“It’s more than you deserve.”
Wiping her filthy hands on her jacket, Julie said, “You know, the problem with the service industry is you have to do everything you can to make sure the customers tip. No matter how screwed up they are, how much they fuck you with you, how little they give a shit about your sense of human dignity, you have to smile and smile and make sure they have a good time.”
She clambered out of the bathtub, wringing blood from the hem of her pretty, pale green satin slip. She wiped her fingers along the rumpled material, leaving streaks. Paused. In afterthought, she removed her heels and strung them along the hook of two curved fingers. Briefly, Julie wondered how she looked in Marie’s eyes: gore-splattered, her dress ruined, bare feet, rat-nest hair, a strappy little handbag made to resemble a child’s idea of a stegosaurus.
“Here’s the thing.”
She approached Marie in a lazy slink, grin widening.
“I’m not your fucking waitress.”
Julie popped open the latch of her handbag. Fingers—long, grey, with far too many knuckles—pushed out from the top, stretching out spider-like.
“You’ve got a nice face, Marie. A model’s face. Cheekbones for days. Nice shoulders too. What do they call it? Fine-boned? Bird-boned? Something pretty like that.”
She slowly approached the woman, holding the handbag just tightly enough that the fingers couldn’t escape, but loose enough for them to grasp desperately at the air.
“You know, back in the Victorian days, some idiot rich bitches—like you—would have a couple of ribs removed so they’d fit their corsets better. Creepy, huh? Still. It was fashionable.”
Julie kept approaching until Marie’s back was pressed against a pillar at the side of the room.
“Of course, those Victorian surgeons were butchers. Amateurs at bone removal.”
Julie held up her bag.
By then, Marie realized what was happening.
By then, it was too late.
“I always say, when you want to rip out a bone or two or a hundred, leave it to the professionals.”
She opened her bag and something leapt out, all fingers and teeth and high-pitched screeches like a bat.
Julie took her lipstick from the bag and reapplied it where it had rubbed off, slowly, languidly.
Marie screamed and tried to run. Julie turned to leave, knowing that the woman didn’t stand a chance.
She heard the first crunch just as she reached the door.
Excerpted from The Dead Take the A Train, copyright © 2023 by Richard Kadrey & Cassandra Khaw