Read Broken Souls Online

Authors: Stephen Blackmoore

Broken Souls (2 page)

Something’s not right. “Sure you don’t need to know a little more about this?”

“No, no,” he says, a hungry look creeping into his eyes. “I know enough. Now, come here.” I’m not buying it.

“He’s got a knife,” the voice in my ear says, as if confirming my suspicions.

Sure enough, Kettleman whips out a wicked-looking blade made of knapped obsidian, its handle just a wrapping of old leather strands covering the stone. He slashes it out at me in a wide arc, faster than I expected. It bites through my suit coat, nicks my tie.

I call my magic around me, shove a burst of lightning out through my hand. Two months ago, channeling this much power would have made me pull from the local pool and probably left me exhausted, but now the magic flows through me fast and smooth. The arcs of electricity dance around Kettleman, but he’s no slouch. They bounce off a shield he’s put up around himself, and the force of my blast only manages to shove him back a couple feet. He grunts against the onslaught and then lets out his own.

A wave of force smashes into me. Knocks me down and I skid ten feet to slam against the concrete wall of the western telescope dome. Wasn’t ready for that.

“The power of a goddess,” Kettleman says, advancing on me like a madman, the obsidian blade flashing in his hand. “You don’t want it, you don’t deserve to keep it.”

“Jesus, man, it’s not like I can give it to ya. Hell, if that’s all it took I’d hand it over right now.” I roll to my feet, draw the Browning from its holster at the small of my back. “Look, I don’t want to kill you. Really. Getting this far was a pain in the ass and I’m not in the mood to start over.”

His eyes narrow into slits, his hand tightens on the obsidian blade. “You’re not worthy of the gift,” he says. “You don’t know what to do with it. It belongs with someone who does. I’ll skin you alive and wear you like a suit.”

There’s an image I didn’t need. “Don’t think it really works that way.”

The floor shudders, a sound of twisting metal behind me. I’ve been so focused on him I hadn’t realized he was setting something up behind me. A long strip of the copper sheeting covering the telescope’s dome tears off and whips down at me. I roll out of the way as it strikes where I was standing. Sparks fly.

Kettleman is on me in a flash. I block his swing with my forearm, drive my palm into his face. I give the strike some magical oomph and hear a loud crack as his nose crunches. He wails in pain, stumbles back, blood streaming from his nose. I could probably end this here. Keep hammering him in the face until he goes down and stays down. But that could kill him. Psycho or not, I need him.

Instead I bolt for the other side of the building. There’s another staircase I can take down. If I can get away from the crazy I can regroup. I’ve spent too much time trying to get a lead on how to get out from under Santa Muerte’s thumb. There’s got to be some way to reason with him. But to do that I need to get him to quit trying to turn me into a pair of pants. I round the curve of the other telescope and skid to a stop.

I’ve found that ghost. The one that kept flitting in and out like a bad radio station. It’s definitely not the one who warned me of the attack. This one’s in no shape to communicate at all. It flickers in and out worse than any ghost I’ve ever seen. Disjointed, scattered. It stands there, its face a sick imitation of Munch’s scream, its body a parody of cohesion. It looks sliced crosswise like a man trapped in a mix-and-match puzzle book for kids where the top and bottom pieces don’t quite line up. I’ve never seen a ghost this incoherent. Even if it were old and faded it wouldn’t be like this. This thing is broken.

But it’s worse than that. The ghost is Kettleman’s.

Unless the old mage has a twin who just happened to die on this rooftop, this is him. Every last detail is there. Same face, same suit, same salt-and-pepper goatee. But if this is Kettleman’s ghost, who’s the maniac with the knife?

Before I get a chance to really put any thought into it I hear that warning voice in my ear say, “Duck.” I don’t argue, just drop down and let Not-Kettleman’s knife sail over my head. I lash back with my leg, catching him above the knee. He screams as the joint pops and he stumbles. The knife falls from his hand. I kick it out of the way.

If this isn’t the real Kettleman then there’s no reason to hold back. I bring the Browning to bear but I underestimate his speed. His good leg sweeps up in a vicious kick with a healthy dose of magic behind it and slams into my forearm. My entire arm goes numb as the gun flies out of my hand and skitters away from me.

So I change tactics and kick him in the nuts. His scream goes up an octave and he starts to make retching noises. I’ve been dealing with this Santa Muerte bullshit for too long and Kettleman was the closest thing to a lead I had. God fucking dammit.

“Why’d you have to go and kill him, you sonofabitch? And who the hell are you?” I slam the heel of my foot into his crotch a couple more times, letting adrenaline, anger and frustration fuel every blow.

When I get done with this bastard there’s not going to be anything left beyond a smear. I step up to curb stomp his skull, bring my leg up and—

He’s not Kettleman anymore. There’s a tearing noise as the guy he’s turned into rips through his clothes. They’re way too small for him. He’s a foot taller at least, and packing more muscle than half a dozen juiced up linebackers. Crew-cut blond hair, clean-shaven, thick cords of muscle, Cyrillic tattoos across his chest. There’s blood still on his face but there’s no sign of the broken nose I just gave him, or the busted knee. That can’t be a good sign.

He reaches up with both hands, grabs my foot midstomp and yanks me onto my ass. I land on the hard concrete and the air punches out of me, my vision blurs. I reach into my coat pocket, struggle for a breath. Not-Kettleman, now a good fit for an extra in a Russian prison movie, pulls himself up off the floor. He reaches down, yanks me up, cocks back his sledgehammer fist.

That’s when I get hold of the pocket watch, twist the crown with my thumb and push the button. I don’t have a lot of control over the watch. I can aim its time-twisting effect, but that’s about it. Like most magic it’s more like a negotiation than an actual command. I want this fucker over and done with. Tacking forty or fifty decades onto him ought to do it.

As usual, the watch has its own ideas. Not-Kettleman screams, drops me and stumbles back, but I don’t see any noticeable difference. No wrinkles, liver spots, anything like that. What did it hit him with? A day? A week? I can’t tell, but even a few minutes ought to hurt like a sonofabitch.

I get the watch all the way out of my pocket, air slowly coming back into my lungs. He’s backing away now, real fear on his face. I spin the crown a couple more times with my thumb. Let’s see how he likes another hit from the watch.

I half expect him to rush me, but instead he runs to the fallen knife, grabs it and shifts back to his Kettleman form. There’s no flash, no pop, no downsizing of Hulk rage. He’s just a skinny academic beat to shit with a flattened nose and a busted knee. No help there, it seems. But I guess he doesn’t need much. He jumps off the roof.

I hit the watch button again, but I have to see him for it to do much. Instead the concrete of the wall he’s jumped over blisters, a hundred years of wear pitting its surface. I look at the watch. Now you work? I crawl to the wall and look over the side. Not-Kettleman has gone back into Russian mobster mode, barely a scratch on him. Nice strategy. Use the Kettleman form to take the brunt of the fall and then saunter away.

I bring up the watch for another shot, but he’s too far away. Dry firing it isn’t recommended. If it can’t hit the target I want it’ll hit something else and there’s no telling what kind of mess that’ll cause. I watch him get behind the wheel of the Bentley, gun the engine and tear out of the parking lot.

With the fight over my hands start shaking from the dump of adrenaline. What the fuck just happened?

“Told you he’d try to kill you,” says the voice in my ear, cutting through the sound of the revving engine, the screeching tires.

“Yeah,” I say. “You want to tell me what this is about? You real? Or am I just going insane?”

If it has an answer, the voice keeps it to itself. Just as well. I don’t think I could handle hearing the truth. I know that voice, know its inflections, I know the sort of thing it might say. It’s a voice I’m very familiar with. I just haven’t heard in a while.

It’s the voice of Alex, the friend I couldn’t save, the one whose soul was chewed up by a ghost I couldn’t destroy fast enough. I’m not stupid enough to think he couldn’t come back from that. I’ve seen it happen before. But if he’s a ghost I should feel it. Not just get this disembodied voice in my head. And if he is back, I’m not sure if I should be glad or worried.

After all, I’m the one who put a bullet in his head.

The memory of Alex’s voice
rings in my mind, but I push it out. That’s a question for later. Right now I need to see what I can find out about what the hell just happened. I could try chasing the Not-Kettleman, but what’s the point? By the time I get to the car he’ll be halfway down the hill. Besides, I don’t need the fake when I have the real one right here.

I limp over to where I saw Kettleman’s ghost. It’s still going in and out of my perception like static. I’m really having a hard time putting my finger on what’s wrong with it. It’s too disjointed for a Haunt or a Wanderer, and it doesn’t have the looped recording feel of an Echo. It just feels . . . incomplete.

I can’t see it, which isn’t too unusual. Sometimes ghosts are just too old and faded and seeing them is a challenge, other times they like to hide. That’s what this one has done, probably freaked out by the fight I just had with its killer. Ghosts can hide from my sight if they want to, and if they’re aware enough to even notice I’m around. Fade from view or just dissolve into a building, sink into the ground. Haunts, ghosts tied to a particular location, tend to be more bashful than Wanderers, the ghosts that aren’t locked to a specific place. Never understood why. Probably because the Wanderers can just up and leave if they don’t like the look of you.

I don’t know when the next park ranger patrol will be coming by the Observatory, or what happened to the guards that should already be here, so I don’t want to linger too long, but I need answers and I might not get a chance to come back anytime soon. I focus my will at the ghost I know is up here to bring it out. Before I got linked to Santa Muerte this took a lot of effort, not to mention a fair amount of my own blood, but now I can do it with just a thought.

And nothing happens. I try it again, pushing out more forcefully with my will. And still nothing happens. Huh. That hasn’t happened in months. There’s definitely something wrong with this ghost.

“Fine, you want to play it that way?” I roll up the left sleeve of my coat and shirt, pull out the straight razor I keep in my coat pocket. The tattoos that cover my body from neck to wrists to ankles have a small, scarred gap on the inside of my left forearm.

Most magic is an act of pure willpower, a negotiation with reality. Any decent mage can toss off a small spell, and sometimes even a big one, without much more than thought. But some magic is steeped in ritual, follows laws laid down when humans were still setting fires with sticks. It demands payment.

I nick my forearm with the razor, let a few drops of blood spill on the concrete, focus my will again to make it appear. A hundred Wanderers in a mile-wide area start to rush in with the sound of a jet engine that only I can hear, the roof of the Observatory filling up like the Staples Center at a Lakers game. Their forms overlap, flow in and out of each other in a seething mess of limbs and faces.

They all scream for a taste of that blood, a howling, nightmare chorus. They want to suck the life out of it, hoping for a little bit of life to hang onto. They’re desperate for it, and though I’ve done this thousands of times if I’m not careful they’ll kill me. After all, the blood’s just an appetizer. I’m the main course.

I push them back with my will, make a bubble for the one I want. They hover over the observatory, hammer against its walls. Sorry, folks, this is an exclusive party and you’re not invited.

Kettleman’s ghost stutters into view, fading in and out, but reasonably solid. It’s wild-eyed, confused. It whips its head back and forth, panic writ large on its face. The weird split of its body, as though it were sliced into chunks and badly stitched together, moves out of sync with itself.

“The hell happened to you?” It startles at my voice, looks at me, blinks. “Come on, you can do it,” I say, trying to coax an answer from it. It opens its mouth, stammers a bit. Lets loose an earsplitting scream.

The sound punches through my skull like an ice pick, sending me to my knees. I slam my will down on Kettleman’s ghost, send it back to whatever slice of the afterlife it was hiding behind before I bled to call it out, cutting it off midshriek. The sound rings in my ears as a high-pitched whine and I can feel a migraine forming behind my eyes. Okay, so that didn’t go as planned.

The ghosts are rushing in now that my concentration is shot. They can’t take the blood without permission. Not from where they’re standing. There’s a barrier between us and unless I give them the go-ahead to go after the blood all they can do is beg.

“Knock yourself out,” I say and the ghosts all converge on the few tiny drops on the concrete, their forms all flowing together as they try to get a taste.

I pull myself to my feet, my head ringing from Kettleman’s shriek. Seriously, that felt like it punched through my goddamn soul. I doubt his ghost is going anywhere soon, though it’s hard to say with the condition it’s in. Ghosts fade over time, no matter what type they are, some just take longer than others. I’m a pretty good judge of how long one will last, but with him I honestly have no clue. Could be a day, could be a hundred years. Regardless, if I want to actually talk to it I think I’m going to need to get some more safeguards. I’ll catch him later when I’m more prepped.

I head down the stairs opposite the side I came up. When I get near the bottom I see splotches on the steps. With the yellowed night sky washing everything out I can’t tell what color they are, but I can guess. I pull out my cell phone and shine the light onto one of them.

Yeah, that’s blood, all right. I take a few steps further, following the trail. He dripped a lot at the bottom, like he stopped bleeding about ten steps up. Interesting.

When I get to the bottom the smell hits me. When a person dies they let out a lot of stuff, and not just blood. It only takes me a second to find the corpse hastily dumped into the bushes near the stairs. I kneel down to get a closer look.

I’m willing to bet it’s Kettleman’s corpse, but I can’t be entirely sure. It’s just one massive wound, completely skinned. Nothing but raw muscle lying in a pool of blood, piss and shit. Blank, lidless eyes stare up at me like an accusation.

Puts a little more perspective on the crazy fucker upstairs. What was it he said? I’ll skin you alive and wear you like a suit? Guess he meant it.

This kind of work takes time. Take him out, skin him, do whatever mojo to take his form. No idea how long that magic would take. But the skinning? That shit should take hours, right? So Kettleman had to have been here long before I showed up. Makes sense that he would have gotten here early to make sure he had the upper hand on me in case I tried something funny. Guess he wasn’t paranoid enough, though.

This kind of preparation has me wondering who the target was here. Was it just Kettleman and I happened to be in the way, or was the guy after me? Hell, maybe he wanted both of us. And how did he find out? Did somebody tip him off? Did he take the skin of someone Kettleman knew and get the information that way? How did he even sneak up on him? If he looked like someone Kettleman trusted, that might do it. Get close enough and then shank him with that knife he tried to use on me. A lot of questions are bouncing around my head right now and I only know one thing for sure.

This guy’s an idiot.

I flip open my phone, take a few snapshots of the corpse from various angles. Then I dial 911. “Apologies for this stunning breach of etiquette,” I say to the corpse as the phone rings. Getting the police involved in mage business is a dick move, but sometimes they can be useful.

Emergency services have gotten worse in L.A. since I was here last. I stay on the phone for almost ten minutes before a woman comes on the line saying, “911, what is your emergency?”

“Hey, I’m up at Griffith Park by the observatory and there’s a dead guy up here. Completely skinned. Real mess. Lying next to the front door of the observatory.”

“Sir, is this a joke?” I probably sound too calm for what I’m telling her.

If the Not-Kettleman was smart, he’d have dumped the body in the trunk, stepped into Kettleman’s life. Who knows how long he could have kept that up without anyone noticing. But with the corpse sitting here, he’s just screwed himself out of that.

“You can tell where I’m calling from, right? Some GPS thing? Then you know I’m at the observatory. You’re probably going to need dental records or something, because seriously, the guy’s got no skin left. His name is Harvey Kettleman. I don’t know where he lives. You’ll figure that out. Oh, and if you talk to him it might not really be him. Just so you know.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Not half as much as I am, lady.” I hang up the phone. I delete the history, though I’m sure they can pull it out of the phone, anyway. That’s fine. It’s a burner and the only numbers I’ve called on this are MacFee and the nice lady at 911. MacFee’ll be pissed, but come on, if he can’t get out of a couple uncomfortable conversations with the police then the guy shouldn’t be in a business where he routinely sells body parts.

I wipe the phone down on my coat, check it for stray hair, fingerprints and all that, and dump it in the bushes a couple feet from the corpse. Even if the Not-Kettleman comes back to grab the body before the police do at least there will be some evidence for them to grab onto. It’s not like they’ll catch the guy or lock him up, but it’ll cause him some hassle and word will get to the rest of the mages in town. The more people who know Kettleman’s dead, the better.

Might help keep some of them alive.


We are creatures of habit. Like it or not we fall into ruts, wear our preferences like comfortable shoes. Even when we know we’re doing it we’re drawn to those things whether they’re useful to us or not.

I pull into the parking lot of the Westbourne Inn, a fifties-era motel in need of a major overhaul off of Pass Avenue in Burbank. Googie lettering on a faded plastic sign in front of the building declares Color TV, Reasonable Rates and Checkout at Noon.

But it says nothing about the ghosts.

I’m drawn to these places the way the ghosts are drawn to me. Rundown and out of the way, forgotten and forlorn. Temporary ports in a storm. Hard to chalk this one up to temporary. Been here a month now. Longest stint in any place since I left home in the nineties. Well, I did spend a couple years in jail, but that was by choice. I was learning some things from the ghost of another necromancer in a cell in Arizona. Long story.

I keep telling myself I’m only in L.A. to get shit sorted out, get out from under that sword Santa Muerte’s got hanging over me. But I think it’s time I own up to the fact that that’s all bullshit. I’m still here because if I don’t dance to Santa Muerte’s tune I’m going to lose more than just Alex.

When I saw Santa Muerte last at Alex’s funeral we left things at an impasse. Sure I can fuck with her plans if I absolutely have to, whatever the hell they might be, but that just puts the people I care about in her sights. People like Vivian.

If she tries anything to hurt Viv, at least if I’m in L.A. I’m close enough to deal with it. Last time I was gone, Santa Muerte murdered my sister to get this whole ball rolling. I won’t let her do that again.

Ideally, I’d kill Santa Muerte, but I haven’t figured out how to crack that particular nut, yet. How do you kill a death goddess? That was part of what I was hoping to get from Kettleman.

The ghosts of the Westbourne Inn flit in and out of my vision as I walk to my room, their passing on the other side invisible to everyone but me. Some of them notice me, most don’t. A cluster of them hang out by my door, stopped by the palindromes I’ve carved into the doorjamb, counting the sunflower seeds I left on the doorstep.

Those alone will keep them out, and I have more powerful wards scrawled on the room’s walls in ink I’ve mixed with goat’s blood and ground-up bone that I got from a local
. Between those and the psychic camouflage the presence of so many ghosts gives me I’m not too worried about being caught unaware if anything nasty decides to come calling. If anything’s coming into this room it’s because I let it in the door.

The Westbourne’s surprisingly full, at least of the Dead. Haunts and Wanderers left over from the motel’s heyday in the fifties. Starlets who missed their big break, washed out second-string actors, men and women trying to get in the door at the nearby Warner Brothers lot and never quite making it. An unsurprising number of them are suicides. Then there are the usual overdosed addicts, beaten prostitutes, a couple dead johns who had coronaries doing the nasty on a Saturday night.

The motel still has a thriving late night business and makes most of its money on an hourly basis. Fine by me. I don’t bother the locals, they don’t bother me. Sure, the place is a rathole, but that just makes it easier to leave when I need to pick up stakes.

I close the door on the yammering ghosts outside. The room is pretty standard for this sort of place. The sheets are clean, at least, and I have a couple spells that help with the cockroaches.

I leaf through a book from a stack on the floor. Mostly folklore and archeological textbooks about Meso-American gods. Brundage’s
Fifth Sun
, Townsend’s
, looking for anything that might give me an idea of what Muerte wants from me. Dry reading, to say the least. I haven’t been able to finish any of them without nodding off. I’ve scoured websites from a computer at the library. Trawled through online forums. All useless.

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