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Usurper

an extract from the novel
by Patrick Welch

Miika sat on her couch and ignored the clattering from the many phones around her. It was nearing one of the busiest times of the day for her and by rights she should be busy taping new messages for the various horoscopes that would be requested.

The meeting with Toombs, however, still had her spooked. It had been fun fucking with him, but what happened after had spoiled that totally. "Just what is going on?" she whispered in frustration.

Perhaps sensing her frustration, Pao jumped up on the couch and curled up next to her. "Was that stinky man mean to you, my beauty?" she greeted it and entwined her sausage fingers in its long fur. Pao purred in the affirmative and stretched out across her, its body lying between her breasts, its head inches from hers. She continued to pet it absently while she considered the events of the afternoon. She didn't have to be involved in this, she knew -- didn't want to be involved in it. But not being able to make contact: that was something that just did not happen. You're not losing your touch, old girl, she reassured herself. But something is not right!

Pao spat in protest as she abruptly sat up. "Sorry," and she placed it gently on the floor. It stalked slowly away, its tail curled proudly over its back as if it were mooning her. "Damn, I hate doing this," she whispered. But she saw no choice. If anybody could help Toombs -- could help them -- it was the Sisterhood. Closing her eyes, she slowly willed herself into a trance. It took her less than a minute to make contact with the spirit world. Making contact with them, however, depended greatly on whether or not they were willing to comply.

It was nearly five years ago when she first stumbled across them. She had been trying to contact another spirit for a client, but they had intruded upon her search like a common street hustler. Unlike other spirits, they were not dead. Not alive, either; they were something else. It had only occurred to her later that they were the ones trying to contact her.

That was how it had always worked in the past. This time was different as she was seeking them. She ignored the cacophony of the spirits that surrounded her on all sides; some were pleading, some demanding, but all seeking her attention. It took all her concentration to shut them out. They're out here somewhere, she thought as she weaved her own spirit through the colorless maze of eternity.

There was no sense of time here, nor of space. In her mind's eye, however, she sensed a green luminescence and a current of unexpected heat coming from somewhere below her. She forced herself in that direction. She followed the faint glow until it slowly grew before her. The heat grew more intense as she neared, and now she could make out something writhing with the light. It appeared to be a mass of tentacles or giant snakes flailing aimlessly about. There were no other spirits around her now and she had occasionally wondered if they were consumed by whatever truly lay within.

But she had to make contact, so she approached steadily, waiting for them to recognize her presence. Now she hovered above them, and she could "see" a red glowing orb hidden within the tentacles. She would go no closer; it was up to them to make the next move.

But for the longest time -- or at least what substituted for time in this realm -- they ignored her. She couldn't force them, she knew. Even if she dived in and figuratively kicked open the door, they would pretend not to be home. Come on, you bitches, she thought.

Perhaps they sensed that. Or perhaps they just became curious. One tentacle abruptly shot out and curled itself around her essence. She could feel its sick oily touch, smell lilacs and burnt hair, taste copper. Then she felt them in her mind. Yes, a voice like muted thunder said, you may come. With that the tentacle released her.

She opened her eyes, breaking the trance immediately. By reflex she glanced at her watch. Only five minutes had passed. She was exhausted now; she needed a hot bath and a long -- and, hopefully -- dreamless nap. But there were other priorities. She picked up the phone and ordered two large pizzas with everything delivered as soon as possible.

Detective Parmalee looked at the business card, then at the man seated across from him. The card read "Gerard Toombs, P.I." and he assumed incorrectly that stood for "private investigator." "What can I do for you?" he asked.

"My client has asked me to investigate the Jason Carruthers case," Toombs replied.

"Carruthers?" Parmalee searched his memory. "I'm not familiar with it. Is it an old case?"

"Not that old. He died six weeks ago." Toombs paused. "Everyone assumed it was suicide."

Parmalee snapped his fingers. "Now I remember! He did a dive out of his office window."

"Or was pushed."

The detective shook his head. "No, no, I investigated that. He was alone in that office, everyone said so. He took a chair, broke the window and tried to fly. Cut and dried."

I know you were the investigator, that's why I'm here. "Is it now? Did you try to find out why he killed himself? Was there a note?"

"No. But it's not my job to find out why someone would off themselves. That's a job for a psychiatrist."

"No chance, say, that he was a victim of extortion? No chance he had enemies, one who might have hid in that office waiting for him?"

Parmalee studied his unwelcome visitor. About six foot, watery brown eyes, thinning brown hair, totally unimpressive. And Parmalee didn't have the time to waste on cases that were so obvious. "There is absolutely no evidence of foul play. You have evidence suggesting otherwise?"

None you'd believe. "Let's just say I have strong reasons to believe that Carruthers was not a suicide."

"Hardly enough to justify me wasting my time or the department's reopening that case."

"Could I have a copy of your report? And the coroner's, of course."

Parmalee considered for a moment. "As a professional courtesy, yes." He pointed at the card. "I can send them to this address?"

"That would be greatly appreciated."

"You'll have it in a few days." He immediately turned his attention to the report on his desk.

"One more thing."

He reluctantly looked up. "What?"

Toombs placed a note on the desk. "Call that man. You might feel a bit differently about this case if you do."

Obnoxious, conceited ass, the detective thought as Toombs left his office. He recalled the case clearly now. Carruthers had killed himself; there was no other explanation, but if Toombs wanted to waste his time and his client's money investigating the obvious, it didn't matter to him. As long as Toombs kept him out of it, at least. He glanced again at Toombs' card. He would send the information as promised, but that was it.

Then he noticed Toombs' note and read it. It contained the name of Robert Holdsclaw, Chief of Police of Baltimore, and a phone number. He put it in his shirt pocket. He had too much to do right now to be calling people he didn't know about a case that was already solved. Maybe, he thought, he would call Holdsclaw during his lunch hour. Maybe.

That didn't go well, Toombs thought as he drove from the police station. Not that he expected to be welcomed with open arms; police were understandably reluctant to reopen cases they thought they had solved. Especially an apparent suicide.

But he had all the confidence in the world in Miika. If she was certain Carruthers was murdered, so was he. Even if the how was as elusive as the wind. Would this unnamed man she mentioned be able to help? Whoever he was, she respected him, perhaps even feared him. He glanced at his cell phone lying silent on the passenger's seat. He wasn't sure if he wanted it to ring or not.

At least he had confidence the detective would live up to his promise. He had gotten Parmalee's name when he had returned the newly cleaned tie to the widow. She was upset he hadn't asked for the chief detective's name before, but then he hadn't expected to need it. On most of his cases as a psychic investigator, he worked directly with the police. Having a civilian client was not, for him, the most ideal of conditions. There was a chance that he was going to have to give Mrs. Carruthers a discouraging word, something that never really bothered the police. He gritted his teeth and tightened his grip on the steering wheel. Even with the insurance money, her life and her family's lives were irrevocably changed. If he couldn't prove -- somehow -- that her husband was murdered, her situation would be approaching critical. Come through for me, Miika. We need you.

He glanced at the clock as he continued to pack for his trip to Las Vegas. Abrahams' flight wouldn't leave for another five hours, but he had to allow plenty of time to get through security.

He hated flying in any event, but 9/11 had made it nearly unbearable. A bus, a train, even driving was preferable. But that was impractical with Las Vegas being on the opposite end of the country from Washington. At least they put me in first class, he thought as he glanced at the airline ticket.

Working for the government had its perks, he had to admit as he tossed another shirt into the suitcase. The IDs they provided, including driver's license and credit cards, were beyond his abilities to obtain quickly. This time he was Eric Wickle, a sales rep in town for business and a tag-along vacation. He even had a room off the strip reserved for a week.

The single suitcase filled, he turned his attention to his carry-on. This held the important items that would guarantee success. It was always packed but he rechecked anyway. Besides a simple toiletries kit, it held his photograph, copies of his real driver's license and social security card, a hand-written diary and his home address and phone number. It wasn't the possession that was the danger, it was the aftermath. Those items assured he would survive it. He also put the file on his assignment in the carry-on. At an appropriate time he would destroy everything Mankowski had given him.

He closed the carry-on, then glanced at his watch. Still plenty of time, but he believed in punctuality so he put his luggage in his Honda Civic -- he drove that when traveling because he didn't care what happened to it when left in the airport parking lot for days at a time -- then returned to the kitchen and cleaned the dishes he had dirtied making breakfast. One last pass through his home to make sure nothing was left on, a quick pause to disconnect the phone and he was ready to go. He had already arranged for the post office to hold his mail and he never bought the paper anyway. The neighbors would know he was gone but they wouldn't know where or when he would return. They were used to his unpredictable traveling anyway.

As he backed out of his driveway, he noticed the sign proclaiming "This home protected by Conners Security" and he suppressed a smile. The sign was all that "protected" his home. But if burglars ever broke in, they would be disappointed. He didn't spend his money on fine furniture, art, even nice clothes. There was no wall safe brimming with rare coins or jewelry. He kept $5,000 in cash in the freezer for emergencies, but otherwise his home was bare of valuables. Even his computer held little information that thieves or hackers could use. If someone ever broke in, they might steal several bottles of wine and trash the place, but they couldn't take anything of real value.

Someday, he vowed, he would change his Spartan existence. Someday he would own a mansion on some southern isle and fill it with all the art and frills his heart desired. But not until he was certain he was safe from the prying eyes of his employers. And he wasn't ready to retire in any event. His grip tightened on the steering wheel with anticipation as he thought of his upcoming adventure. This, he was certain, was going to be fun.

Miika grimaced in effort as she held onto the handrail and slowly walked off the bus. She almost never left her warehouse sanctuary. Bills and banking were done by phone and she had her food delivered. She had no need for a car so didn't own one. This trip, however, couldn't be avoided.

At least she could use the elevator in her home that no one else knew about. It would be impossible for her to leave by the fire escape she forced all her visitors to use. If there ever was a fire in her warehouse, she knew she was doomed. She tried not to think about that.

Her destination was less than a block from the bus stop, but she was gasping for breath and sweating heavily when she reached the doorway. The door was painted a flat black and, except for graffiti etched into the surface, bore nothing, neither a name nor a number. She pressed the button on the intercom next to it. "This is Miika, let me in."

There was a long pause, and she began to fear her trip was wasted. He must be here, she thought. There's nowhere he can go. "Why do I need to see you?" a hoarse voice finally asked.

"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't important. If you would buy a fucking phone I wouldn't have to be standing out here. Now let me in."

"The door is unlocked."

She turned the knob. Despite its decrepit appearance, the door opened smoothly. She looked around to make sure no one was watching, then opened it and stepped inside as quickly as she could.

The foyer was dark, but when she shut the door, lights suddenly appeared in the ceiling. It was as though she was looking at the sky on a star-lit night and she could even make out a few constellations. It was unsettling because she wasn't all that certain that in truth she wasn't looking at the sky. Arms outstretched so she could feel the walls, she inched forward until she found herself walking on carpet and the room widened. Now the star-like lights covered all the walls. Depth perception was nearly impossible as the lights swirled around her on all sides. The Milky Way curled around the left wall and into the ceiling while a comet was streaking lazily across the right wall. The light, however, did not adequately illuminate the room and she pulled her shawl tightly around herself. It was cold in here as well.

"There's a chair to your left. I'll join you shortly," a voice came from somewhere.

She took a few steps to her left and bumped into it. Sighing, she grabbed the arm and sat gratefully. Then she heard a door open behind her and approaching footsteps. "Let me see you," said Keren, now standing behind her. She sat unmoving as he ran his fingers along her face, her shoulders, her arms and breasts. Since he was blind, it was the only way he could "see" her. "It's you," he said after he stopped.

"Of course it's me, asshole. Keren, you are such a wonderful host. Couldn't you at least have a candle in here?"

"You don't like my lights?'

"Can't see shit."

He laughed. "Neither can I."

"That was your decision."

"The Sisterhood demanded it."

"So you're still working for those bitches."

"Of course. They're downstairs sleeping even as we speak."

She made a moue. "So you got them out of New Orleans before the shit happened."

He walked in front of her so she could see him. Or at least his general shape. "We left a month before, actually. We knew it was coming."

Just like those assholes! "But you couldn't tell anybody, could you? Warn them."

"No one would have listened."

"You're probably right," she said in frustration.

"You didn't leave your aerie to discuss the hurricane."

"No." How do I phrase this? "Something has come up. I don't understand it."

"Someone not have a lifeline?"

"I don't read palms anymore. Besides, vampires are a myth."

In the dim light she could see him shrug. "If you say so."

"No, this is something else. I couldn't make contact with a spirit."

He said nothing for a moment. "Losing your touch?"

"Hell, no. And the man who brought it to my attention, he's a psychic as well and he couldn't make contact."

"Perhaps the person is alive."

She shook her head. "Not a chance. You don't jump fifteen stories and walk away. No, this man is dead. But I don't know where he went."

There was another long silence. "This is an enigma." Suddenly he knelt in front of Miika so she could make out his features. He looked young, barely in his thirties, and reasonably handsome. Except for the thick black scar that ran across his eyes, the aftermath of the ceremony that had blinded him and joined him forever to the Sisterhood of Twilight. "You are alarmed."

"Scared shitless. This doesn't happen!"

"I'm not sure if the Sisterhood will help you."

"I don't need their help. I just what to know what I'm dealing with."

"That they might be willing to do."

"When can I talk to them?"

"You cannot. That is my role."

"Can you have an answer by next Monday?"

In the dark she couldn't see him shudder. "That is possible."

"My friend and I will be here then. Noon."

"Your friend?"

"Yes. This is really his problem, not mine. Don't worry, he won't say anything."

"That would be wise."

"In that case we're done here. Nice seeing you again."

He stood in shrouded silence as she made her painful way down the hall. Her story alarmed him as well. The Sisterhood would have to know of this. Telling them, however, was not an experience he looked forward to.

Miika was still shivering when she reached the street, and not just from the cold. Being near Keren made her as edgy as a ballerina dancing on alligators. The Sisterhood was even worse. And they're here! That was not good for her peace of mind. "Graveyard, you now owe me your left nut."

She glanced at her watch as she inched toward the bus stop. It claimed she had only been with Keren for five minutes, which was impossible. Then she thought of how large that room appeared to be. Yet the doorway was wedged between two other buildings like an envelope between books on a bookshelf. By all rights there was no room for that room. "I hate this weird shit."

The bench at the bus stop was occupied, but the man using it graciously gave it up. She took up most of it. According to her watch and the schedule, the next bus wouldn't pass for nearly a half hour. She vowed to treat herself to a long bubble bath when she got home. She had much more than perspiration to wash away.

Toombs nodded grimly as he read over the police report. Detective Parmalee had been as good as his word and the copies arrived the next day. As he had suspected, there was nothing in the report to suggest Carruthers was anything else but a suicide. According to his secretary and two others, Carruthers had entered his office after lunch and shut the door so he could have some privacy and do some paperwork. Nothing unusual about that. Just a few minutes later, the secretary heard the sound of shattering glass, then a scream. When she ran into the office, Carruthers was gone.

The office had no closet or other exit and beyond the furniture, the room was otherwise empty. The coroner's report stated death was caused by massive trauma to the head and chest, the aftermath of striking the pavement from such a height. Beyond aspirin and a slight trace of alcohol, there were no chemicals in his body. Carruthers' death could only be a suicide.

And how do I convince the police it wasn't? He had done so in the past; it was why someone had referred him to the lawyer and then the widow. But in those instances there had always been something. A suspicion of criminal activity, business or inheritance issues, sexual promiscuity, extortion; in every case, the lawyer or (more often) the police had brought him in because they weren't entirely sure.

And he was successful. He had learned quickly not to take the word of a spirit at face value, a painful lesson when one victim assured him one person had done the crime and it turned out later the accused had an air-tight alibi. But even then he had prodded the police in the right direction.

Shaking his head, he looked at the dossier on Carruthers. By all indications he was happily married, successful, had no health or psychological issues to be concerned about. There was nothing to suggest he was a candidate for offing himself. Except his swan dive out his office window.

And no note. He knew -- and Miika had confirmed -- that Carruthers was killed. But he wouldn't convince Parmalee to reopen the case with the evidence he could provide. Which, he admitted reluctantly, was no evidence at all.

The telephone interrupted his morose musing. "Hello?" he answered immediately.

"It's arranged."

He recognized Miika's voice from the other end. "Excellent. When?"

"Next Monday. Pick me up at 11 a.m.; I'll be outside waiting. Wear comfortable clothes and bring an open mind. The gentleman whom you are going to meet is quite ... unusual."

"Thanks. I owe you."

"You can't imagine how much. See you then, Graveyard."

Toombs frowned as he hung up. It had taken him quite some time to become acclimated to dealing with the spirit world. But Miika was much more deeply involved than he had any desire to be. If she considered this unnamed person "unusual," then he was certain the experience was going to be extremely unsettling.

I can't put this off any longer. Keren swore softly as he made his way to the stairs and the basement below. There was really no reason for the Sisterhood to become involved in the affairs of the mundane world; their concerns and obligations stretched far beyond Earth. But he trusted Miika, and if she was alarmed, then it was necessary the Sisterhood be alerted.

Sudden winds howled around him and blasts of freezing cold struck him like angry fists as he made his way down the stairs. Since the initiation had robbed him of his sight, he could now sense and communicate with the shadows that flitted constantly between this world and the other realms. Blindness was a small price to pay to become a servant of the Sisterhood. By wakening them now, he was going to pay a far greater one.

The underground chamber stretched for miles, both in this world and the next. Shadows darted in and out of his perception as he made his way to the giant gong that would waken his masters. The last time it had been used, they had summoned him. They had foreseen the disaster in New Orleans and he had to move each of the giant black cocoons they dwelled in 400 miles and three dimensions to safety.

The shadows tried to converse with him as he walked, but he ignored them. Usually they had nothing to say beyond whines and threats and he was in no mood to humor them. He continued on, unmindful of the time, until he felt a slight change of temperature before him. It had to be the gong. He slowed his pace and held his right arm out in front of him. The change in temperature was more noticeable now, and within a minute he came in contact with his objective. He then knelt and searched the floor until his hand closed around the giant hammer. Holding it with both hands, he swung it in a wide arc over his hand and smashed it into the gong.

He heard nothing but felt a tremor in the air and an unexpected burst of heat. One strike would suffice, he knew, so he dropped the hammer and waited.

They arrived almost immediately. The shadows fled as they coalesced before him. Even with his ruined retinas and eyelids seared shut, he could "see" them as a glowing sphere of white. He was certain that their very presence would have blinded him if the ritual had not. He said nothing, merely waited. The pain would begin soon.

Without sign or warning they struck. They enveloped him, invaded him, invaded his mind, his body, inhabited him to his basic DNA level. He would have collapsed from the agony but they would not allow that; they kept him as erect and rigid as an iron bar as they sought the reason for the intrusion. Time, nearly meaningless anyway within the domain of the Sisterhood, ceased even to be a concept. Keren lost awareness of everything, even his constant keening of pain and rage, until the Sisterhood was finally satisfied and released him. He sank slowly to his knees from exhaustion. Nothing lingered, however; no scars, no bruises or anything else to mark the invasion. Except the memories, and they were more than sufficient.

"You were right to summon us," said a voice from somewhere. He wasn't certain if indeed it wasn't coming from inside him. It was neither male nor female, human or machine. It was just ... words.

"I knew you needed to know." The words fell from his lips like grain from a leaking sack.

"We must investigate this. We shall summon you when we have more." With that the glowing white sphere disappeared.

He started back immediately. He didn't tell them he was meeting with Miika and her friend on Monday; there was no need. They would summon him with their response long before that, no matter how long it took them. He was still trembling, however. If the Sisterhood had disagreed with his assessment of the situation, there was a good chance he would have been stripped of all his being and left as an empty shell to turn to dust on the chamber floor.

Keren occasionally wondered if his rare meetings with them were the reason he was still alive. He had become an acolyte of the order nearly three hundred years ago. Some might argue the ordeal he endured every time he was in their presence was a small price to pay for near immortality.

He couldn't disagree more.


© Patrick Welch 2006.
This piece is published here for the first time.

The novel, Usurper, will be published by Twilight Times Books, late in 2006.

Patrick Welch's collection of dark fantasy stories, Avenging Dreams and Other Curious Occupations, is published by Double Dragon e-Books (spring/summer 2006), and his vampire novel, Thorne, is due later from Twilight Times Books.

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