Authors: Stephen Blackmoore
His head explodes in a shower of blood and bone leaving a ragged stump. I flinch from the spray, crying out as the inside of the car is painted in red, and this time I do lose control of the car, pop it up onto the curb and almost take out a street sign. Blood drips from the ceiling, covers the windshield in a thick layer of red, coats my face.
A split second later it’s all gone. Alex, the blood, the bits of bone and brain. But the taste of his blood in my mouth is still there. Thick, coppery. Shaking, I get the car off the curb, ease it back into traffic, ignore the honking horns around me. Goddammit. I’m not sure which pisses me off more, the possibility that something is fucking with me or that I’m fucking with myself.
The Bentley in my rearview pulls me back to the problem at hand. Whatever the fuck the driver is, Alex was right. I’m not going to lose the car in this traffic. If this were a different city I’d get out of the car and disappear in a crowd on foot. Only L.A.’s not a city of walkers. There aren’t any crowds to get lost in.
Or maybe there are.
A flash of a memory that isn’t mine hits me and my vision blurs for a second before clearing. The accompanying headache isn’t great, but sometimes having these ghost memories can actually be useful.
There’s a train station nearby on Wilshire. I’ve never been there, but some ghost I pulled in when Alex died has. Whoever it was must have been a transplant because I get the accompanying thought that L.A. calling their trains a subway is adorable. Not a lot of people use it, but there might be enough that I can blend into the crowd.
I turn onto Wilshire, head back the way I came. I get a little distance between me and the Bentley, hug the curb, wait until I see the station on my right. Then I engage in the time honored L.A. tradition of the hit-and-run by swerving the Mercedes into the fender of a taxicab. I jump out of the car with a pissed off cab driver yelling at me, bolt for the Wilshire/Normandie station. Behind me I hear the Bentley screech to a stop, the horns of pissed off drivers blaring.
This close and I can see the driver. Alex was right. It’s a woman with short, blonde hair glaring at me from behind the wheel. Pale, high cheekbones, too much makeup. I run to the station entrance, waving at her as she gets out of the car in the middle of the street. I push my way down the escalator, pass beneath a mural of a parade that curves around the station entrance, down past the ticket machines. They run on the honor system down here and nobody stops me as I run down to the platform just as a train is pulling into the station.
The crowd should be heavy enough for my purposes. Men and women with briefcases and shopping bags, bikers with backpacks. Mothers with strollers, kids yakking on cell phones. I push my way past them and get into the back of the final car. An announcer tells me the next stop is Wilshire and Vermont and it should only take a few minutes to get there.
I start to congratulate myself on giving the driver the slip, figuring that I can get off at the next stop, steal another car and be on my way, when she steps on at the other end of the train car just as the doors are about to close. The train pulls out of the station with a lurch.
I was hoping I’d get a head start and lose her. Now it looks like my best bet is to keep my distance and take the train all the way to Union where the crowd will be biggest. There are about twenty people in this car. Surveillance cameras, cell phones, maybe even a plainclothes cop or two. She’s not going to try anything until we get out of here.
And then she goes out of her way to prove me wrong.
“Eric Carter,” she yells, her voice thick with an Eastern European accent. Russian, maybe? Hard to tell with the chatter of people, the sound of the train on the tracks, the automated announcer telling us to watch our bags.
It’s clear she’s looking at me standing here at the back of the car and everybody’s attention snaps between us as they try to figure out what’s going on. Crazies on a train are nothing new, and already people are muttering to themselves.
“Got the wrong guy, lady,” I say. I look at a skater with a Plan B board and a nylon messenger bag standing next to me. “I have no idea who she is.” He edges away from me.
“I’m going to skin you alive,” she says and pulls a disturbingly familiar-looking obsidian blade out of her jacket pocket. Now she’s really got everyone’s attention. Most people are edging out of the way, though a couple are getting out of their seats. A lot of texting and taking pictures. No doubt somebody’s taking video of her. She glares at the train passengers, sweat beading on her forehead, eyes wide.
“Stay out of my way and I won’t kill you, too,” she says to them. Her voice is shaking and I get the distinct impression that she’s just bitten off more than she can chew.
“Calm down, ma’am,” says the guy nearest her. He edges closer to her, not taking his eyes off the knife. “I’m sure we can work out whatever—” She slashes the knife out at him, though he’s too far away for it to hit him. He takes the hint and stops moving.
The next stop comes up really soon, and I’ve got a full car between me and her. All I really need to do is wait and make sure she doesn’t make a move. At this point the cops will grab her the moment she steps off the train. They’ll ask me some questions, I’ll tell them I don’t know who the fuck she is and not have to worry about her for a little while.
She must sense this, because a look of panicked desperation crawls across her face like a swarm of cockroaches.
“You’re all in my way,” she says quietly, sounding more like she’s talking to herself than to any of us. “I don’t want to kill you. But you’re all in my way.”
A big “uh-oh” goes off in my head and I can tell this is about to get very, very messy. I start to draw in power from the local pool just in case I need it. She doesn’t seem to notice that I’m drawing in power and I can’t feel her doing it. That’s one surefire way to tell if a mage is in the area. We can all feel it when somebody pulls power from the pool. Can she even cast?
She digs her free hand into a pocket and pulls out a small slip of crumpled paper, smooths it against her pant leg. She’s visibly shaking now. Once she has it straightened out she lets it go. It flutters to the floor.
Paper charms are some of the easiest to make. You can embed all kinds of spells onto paper. Love charms, alarms, wards. I use them all the time with Sharpies and
Hello, My Name Is
stickers to get people to think I’m someone else, think I’m some place I’m not, or not pay attention to me at all.
If you’re skilled enough and powerful enough you can pack a paper charm with some pretty serious shit. And with that look of screaming panic on the woman’s face, I can’t imagine this one’s anything good.
Between the fact that she’s pulled a preprepared charm and that she hasn’t drawn any power from the pool, I at least have an answer to one question. She’s not the guy I ran into last night wearing some woman’s skin. This might not be her real body, but at least I know I’m dealing with two different people.
I don’t give the paper a chance to hit the ground. I can’t reach it all the way over here, and I doubt I would want to. Instead I throw out a shield that, hopefully, will protect me from the worst of the nastiness it’s about to unleash.
I feel a flare of magic in the train car when the paper hits the floor. The slip flares like flash paper and a sudden inferno of green fire engulfs the car.
The flames explode through the enclosed space, rushing past everyone and everything, though nothing ignites. Instead the lights in the car flicker and die, the windows blow out. Cell phones spark, the train’s cameras explode. I feel the force of her spell slam against my shield, pushing me hard against the wall of the car, the spectral flames trying to burn through my defenses. The passengers jerk in their seats, convulse like they’re having grand mal seizures, fall limp in their seats, or hit the floor.
I feel every one of their deaths.
The sensation of their collective dying is a punch in the gut, their souls separating from their bodies a hammer blow I wasn’t expecting. One or two dead I’ll feel like a pinprick in the back of my mind. Easy to ignore. But thirty in one shot leaves me reeling, forces me to my knees. A few cast off ghosts as they die, confused, unfocused. The rest are just gone.
A second later it’s all over. The train continues on its way, the sound of its passing over the tracks deafening through the blown-out windows. The only things alive in the car are me and the Russian woman at the other end.
We stand there staring at each other a moment, both of us shocked into silence. “They were in the way,” she says, her voice barely audible over the sounds of the train.
“Hell of a rationalization for mass murder,” I say. Jesus. My vision goes out of focus and I don’t know if it’s an aftereffect of some of her spell getting through my defenses or because I’ve never been around such a massive die-off.
She starts to walk down the aisle toward me, eyes unfocused. “I’m going to throw you out onto the tracks,” she says. “And then I’m going to drag you into a dark corner and skin you alive. Take your power, take your memories. Take everything you are.” I get the distinct impression that she’s not talking to me so much as thinking out loud.
Dizzy and unsteady, I get to my feet. “Yeah, I don’t think I’m down with that plan. I don’t know who the fuck you are lady, or why you and your boyfriend have such a hard-on for DIY taxidermy, but you really should have done your homework before you decided to screw with me.”
Her attention snaps onto me out of whatever sick daydream she was having. She laughs, halfway down the aisle. “Look at you. You can barely stand. What are you going to do?”
“Look up the word necromancer some time.”
Used to be a time where this would have taken me days of preparation and thousands of dollars in materials, but after I hooked up with Santa Muerte, whether it’s because I have some of her power, or if it just unlocked more of my own, things changed. Now what I’m planning is little more than a thought. It’s more complicated than I’ve tried before. After all, thirty people is a lot, but the principle is the same.
I throw out my magic, latch onto the tiny, lingering bits of life left in all those corpses, and squeeze. Something inside me tears, a cold burning inside my chest I’ve never felt before, driving me back to the floor. Panic runs through me. Am I having a heart attack, or have I pushed myself too far this time? Maybe I’ve finally run too much juice through the pipes and this is me burning out.
But the magic doesn’t fade and I don’t die so I figure I’ve got at least a couple minutes to finish what I started. I push tendrils of unseen force, threads of pure will wrapping around all of these poor bastards who went from bitter commuters to hunks of meat in the blink of an eye. I reach out through those threads, feel their last thoughts, their final panicked moments care of this crazy bitch.
She walks toward me, picking her way gingerly past the corpses, laughing nervously, as if this all some weird joke and could everybody get up now and not be dead? I can’t tell if she’s fully realized what she’s done. Whether she’s freaking out because of me or all of the bodies she’s just created. How about we make it both?
The hand of one of the corpses, a slack-jawed, empty-eyed girl slumped back in her seat, reaches out and grabs the hem of her sleeve. The woman jerks back, slashing at the body with the knife. The arm doesn’t let go. I don’t let it let go.
She pulls away, stepping back into another dead commuter, who wraps her in his arms. She screams and stabs back at it, the blade sinking into dead flesh. I bring another corpse up from the floor like I’m pulling on a marionette’s strings. Then another, and another, and another.
She’s frantic now. Punching, kicking. She screams, swears at me. Calls me names in three different languages. One arm pinned, the other desperately trying to push the corpses away. The knife is useless. She can barely move it with all that dead meat hanging off her.
So this is what it’s like to have an undead army.
“Get them off!” she yells, her voice a high-pitched shriek. “Please.” Tears are pouring out of her eyes. If she wasn’t totally off the rails before she sure as hell is now. She’ll have nightmares for years. Not that I’m going to let her.
The train’s coming into the station. Maybe a minute, maybe less. I sure as hell don’t want to be here when it does. Being the last survivor in a train full of corpses is a recipe for getting shot at by a trigger-happy LAPD and being asked too many questions I can’t answer.
So far I only have the corpses weighing her down, holding her in place. But that’s not enough. Not for me and sure as hell not for them. I pull myself to my feet, the pain in my chest spreading. I’m still not convinced this isn’t a massive coronary. Though the vertigo is passing, I’m still having trouble standing. I head up the aisle toward her, thinking I should grab that knife, but then I hear the automated announcement saying we’re coming in to the next station. Crap.
Instead, I edge toward the door as the train slows, brakes shrieking and throwing up sparks. I have one of the corpses pull the rear doors apart. The wind, already blasting through the blown-out windows, roars through the open door. Time to leave.
Once I’m gone the corpses won’t keep moving long. But it’ll be long enough. I push out my will with all the fury and anger I can to fill those empty brains.
“Kill her,” I say, and jump.
I hit the ground hard,
rolling to absorb some of the shock. I feel the flare of magic as spells in my tattoos take most of the impact. I had them added after getting the crap beaten out of me multiple times. A broken nose leaves a lot to be desired.
Even with all that I take a beating. Jumping from a speeding train’s gonna leave a mark no matter what. There’s a wrenching in my shoulder, pain flares, eclipsing the burn in my chest. The train recedes in the distance and I half roll, half crawl to something like standing and limp toward the side of the tunnel.
First priority is getting as much distance between me and that moving grave pulling into the station as possible. Get off the tracks, get to safety. I’m not as worried about the mass murderer on the train as I am about getting run down by the next train coming. I don’t even want to think about getting picked up by the cops.
I find a safe spot, pull out a paper name tag with the words
Hello, My Name Is
on it and write “You can’t see me” on it in black Sharpie. I concentrate, twist reality around a little, then a little more. I don’t want this spell coming undone until I’m well and truly the hell out of here. I slap the name tag on my chest and feel the magic in it take hold. It works different on cameras than it does on people, but it should at least fuzz out my image enough that they can’t slap my face on the evening news. Sometimes I think Sharpie magic might be the best magic there is.
I check my phone. It’s fried. Soot blackens the area around the buttons, the screen. I try to check the battery compartment and the whole thing falls to pieces in my hands. I slip the pieces into my coat pocket. No reason to give the cops something else to track me by. I have no idea if the other one I bought at the swap meet works, but at least it’s not smoking.
“There’s a maintenance tunnel nearby,” Alex says, appearing at my elbow. He’s back to having a head.
I jump, stumbling in the darkness. “Fuck, would you quit that?” I say.
“Didn’t know you startled so easily,” he says. “Or maybe I did? Have you figured out if I’m a hallucination or not, yet?”
“Jury’s still out,” I say. “What’s this about a maintenance tunnel?”
“Hallway, really,” he says. “I wonder, did I see it, or did you see it and just don’t remember seeing it?”
“Not sure it really matters right now,” I say. “Show me.”
A minute later we come to a heavy door plastered with stickers telling me that unauthorized entry is a felony. How cute. I charm the lock and it pops open onto a staircase heading down. Dim yellow lights barely illuminate the gloom. I close the door behind me and fuse the lock with another charm. I lean against the wall and slump to the floor.
“Any idea where this goes?” I say.
Alex shrugs. “Somewhere that isn’t here,” he says. “You don’t look so good.”
“I don’t feel so good.” My shoulder and chest have gotten into a pissing match over which one hates me more and now my knee’s starting to get in on the action.
Now that the main danger is past the adrenaline dump is wearing off, and I’m starting to think about what just happened. She killed everyone on that train. Everyone. Thirty people at least. And the spell she used wasn’t one that she cast herself. That paper charm was a one-time curse. A doozy, sure, but if she didn’t even try to pull in any magic from the local pool, she probably doesn’t know how. Someone else made that thing for her. I’m betting the guy who skinned Kettleman. That sure as hell looked like his knife.
I’ve seen death that’s uglier, messier, almost as many corpses, but I was never there when it happened. If someone dies nearby I’ll feel it but it’s barely more than a pinprick. But thirty at once that close? Some days this necromancy shit sucks.
I shake the thought off. Death isn’t anything new to me. Focus on more immediate problems. I rub at the pain in my chest. I don’t know what the hell I did. It had something to do with that spell I cast. I’ve never animated that many corpses at one time. This isn’t burnout, the magic came too easily. So what is it?
“People are gonna be freaking out, soon,” Alex says. “Cops finding you wandering around in the tunnels might not be the best move for you.”
I’d rather just take a nap, but he’s right. I can’t stay here. I haul myself back to my feet and head down the stairs. When we finally reach the bottom the hallway stretches out ahead of us into darkness.
“How about that crazy bitch who tried to kill me? Any idea why?”
“You are kind of an asshole,” he says.
“I think murdering a train full of bystanders kind of wins her the medal.”
I pick my way past old office furniture, mildewed boxes, shrink-wrapped pallets of paper. Takes me a few minutes but then I realize that this passage is being used as storage. And it’s pretty far in from where I entered, which means there’s another door nearby.
“Yeah,” Alex says, “but you’re still kind of an asshole.”
“If this is about the night in the mansion, you were already dead when I shot you,” I say.
“You sure about that?”
I stop, turn toward him, look him up and down. “Yes,” I say. “I’m sure. I’m also sure you’re not a ghost, I’m pretty sure you’re not a nervous breakdown. I’m not entirely sure you’re you. So you want to tell me just what the fuck you are?”
“How’s your shoulder doing?” he says. “Took a pretty nasty spill out there.”
“It’s been better.”
“Yeah? How about your chest? Hurts a lot, doesn’t it?”
That stops me. The pain’s fading, but still there. It’s a cold, hollow feeling. “What about my chest?”
He smiles at me. “You’re right,” he says. “I’m not a ghost. You’re going to want to make a left at that split in the hall, by the way.”
“Don’t change the subject,” I say.
“Stairs leading out,” he says, changing the subject anyway. “They’ll get you into an area of the Wilshire and Vermont station. You’re not supposed to be there, but that’s never stopped you before. Oh, and things are a little hectic there at the moment. You know, with a train full of dead people on it. Nice job with the bodies, by the way. That should keep people guessing for a good long while. What do you think they’ll say killed them? Toxic gas? Massive electrical short?”
I bend down to move an office desk out of the way. “I’d chalk it up to terrorist attack,” I say. They’ll probably close the train down for a few weeks. The conspiracy theorists are going to have a field day.
“Could be. Could be. You know it’s really too bad she got away.”
“What do you mean?” I turn on him but he’s gone. There’s no flash of light, no pop in the air. He’s just there one second and gone the next.
I spin around to see if he’s just fucking with me, extend my senses even though I know he’s no ghost. Whatever this guy is I’m pretty sure it’s not Alex. Maybe. It just doesn’t sound like him. That or death has turned him into a bigger dick than I remember.
It takes me another twenty minutes to get to the end of the tunnel, and when I open the door onto the station it’s a zoo. I get caught up in the crush of people being herded out to the street. People are speculating about anthrax, a bomb, sarin gas like in that Tokyo subway. If they knew the real truth, they’d all shit bricks.
For all the panic, people are surprisingly orderly. I can see that they’re afraid. Outside is a parking lot’s worth of cop cars, fire engines and ambulances. News choppers are starting to fill the sky. Paramedics stand around not sure what to do. Hope they brought a lot of body bags.
I push my way through the crowd, hoping I can get out of there before anybody tries to ask me any questions. The name tag should keep most people out of my way, but if anyone in this crowd has even a little bit of talent they’ll spot me. I’m almost through to the edge of the throng when I catch it. A whiff of smoke, the overwhelming scent of roses.
I glance over my shoulder and Santa Muerte is staring at me from inside the crowd, bare skull in a perpetual grin, white wedding dress shimmering in the afternoon sunlight. The crowd breaks in front of her as she sweeps her scythe, totally unaware of her presence. I could run, but what the hell would be the point? The new tattoo starts to burn, so I know it’s doing something, but the fact that she’s here tells me that it’s not doing enough.
I freeze, don’t make a sound. She advances, inertia creeping inexorably toward me, and stops a few feet away from me. Facing the wrong direction.
“Señora de las Sombras,” I say. She whips around to face me and though her eyes are empty pits I could swear it feels like she’s struggling to focus on me. Maybe this tattoo isn’t doing so bad after all.
“Husband,” she says, her voice flat and neutral. I wince at the word. “You’re trying to hide from me.”
“Doing a pretty piss poor job of it, apparently.”
“Yes. Walk with me. Take my hand. We have things to discuss.”
A few people, minor talents probably, glance at me talking to nothing. But in this age of Bluetooth headsets people talking to the air in front of them is nothing new.
“The last time I took your hand I got a little more than I bargained for,” I say. “So you’ll excuse me if I decline. What do you want?”
“I sensed you were in danger. I came to your aid.”
“Kind of on the late side.”
“I was . . . delayed. Whatever it is you’ve done has made it difficult to come to your aid.”
“Yeah? What about last night? Didn’t think I was in danger then? No, I think you’re here because I went off your radar and it freaked you out.”
She says nothing and I let the silence drag out. It occurs to me that a staring contest with an eyeless death goddess isn’t going to get me anywhere, so I turn my back on her and start to walk away.
“Wait,” she says. “Please.”
That stops me. Please? From her? I glance over my shoulder. “All right. What do you want?”
“You are in danger. But I don’t know from what. Something interfered with my ability to see you last night. And earlier before I found you here.”
That’s almost as disturbing as hearing her say “please.” “What could do that?” I say.
It’s not the new tattoo. Aside from the fact that I didn’t have it last night, it’s pretty clear that it makes it hard for her to focus on me, but not impossible to track. I run my thumb over the wedding ring on my finger. I knew it was too much to hope for that it would actually hide me from her.
“I don’t know. And that’s why I am, as you say, ‘freaked out.’”
I don’t trust her, but I trust whoever’s blocking her connection to me even less. If the guy who took out Kettleman and the woman on the train have some way to block my connection to Santa Muerte I need to look into it. Carefully.
“Good to know,” I say. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
“Be careful,” she says. “You’re no good to me dead.”
“Noted, Señora.” I turn from her and start to push my way through the crowd.
“Some of the dead were mine,” she says.
“The people on the train who died. Some of them came to me. To Mictlan. They told me what happened. Who was that woman who tried to kill you?”
“I don’t know. I—” I look around at the milling crowd. A few are starting to notice me. Here is not the place to start talking about dead people on the train. “I don’t know. But I’m going to find out. Thank you for your—” I search for the right word, come up short. “Concern. Now unless you want me to do something, you can go fuck off.” This time I keep pushing through the crowd and I don’t look back. The smell of smoke and roses fades a few moments later.
Dammit. I had hoped that the new tattoo would get in the way of her finding me. But it seems something else is doing that for me. Could it be Alex? Could it be something about him that’s blocking me from her? For that matter, with the tattoo, how is he able to find me? The spell doesn’t include ghosts, but I’m still having trouble believing that he is one.
I get a few blocks away from the station before stealing another car. Today’s ride is a gray Honda Accord. Most of the time I prefer cars that are a few years out of date, that don’t look too clean. Shabby doesn’t grab attention.
Not long back I had a ’73 Cadillac Eldorado I got off another necromancer I threw down with in Texas. Steered like a mule, but it was a sweet ride. Two and a half tons of fine American steel. Lost it down in San Pedro when I drove it over to the land of the dead and couldn’t bring it back. Long story. I really miss that car.
An hour later I’m back in Burbank, my body in agony. On the plus side I don’t have a broken nose and none of my ribs seem to be out of place, and the burning in my chest is gone. I’ll take bruises and a sprain to either of those any day.
I strip down and check myself in the mirror. It’s always hard to tell where the bruises are amid all my ink, but the worst are easy enough to see. My shoulder is a massive welt of purple and black that spreads down past the scapula.
I wash off in a shower with no water pressure, get the train grime off of me. When I’m done and toweled off I slap a pasty concoction of herbs onto whatever bruises I can reach. Arnica and eucalyptus, mostly, plus some stuff I got from an apothecary in Chinatown, all mixed in with Tiger Balm and a bottle of crushed-up aspirin. Between that and a couple Tylenol I should at least be functional.