Unclean Spirits

Daniel Abraham

(aka MLN Hanover)


It was raining in Denver the night Eric Heller died. The clouds had rolled in late in the afternoon, white pillars ascending toward the sun with a darkness at the base that was pure threat. Seven minutes after five o’clock-just in time for the rush-hour traffic-the sky opened, rain pounding down onto the streets and windows. It was still going three and a half hours later. Falling water and flashing lightning hid the sunset, but Eric could feel it. It was a side effect; he could always feel the dark coming on.

“Something’s happening,” the voice from his cell phone said. “Something big.”

“I know, Aubrey. I’m on it.”

“I mean really big.”

“I’m on it.”

Across from Eric in the dim orange light of the bar, a man laughed and the waitress smiled a tight little smile that didn’t reach her eyes. Eric tapped his glass, the tick-tick-tick of his fingernails sounding like the rain against the window.

“Okay,” Aubrey said. “But if there’s something I can do, you’ll tell me. Right?”

“No question,” Eric said. “Take care of yourself, okay? And maybe fly low for a while. This might get a little messy.”

Aubrey was a decent guy, which meant he did a lot of decent-guy things. Eric’s present job didn’t call for that skill set. He needed a hard-ass. And so he was sitting in this bar in one of the worst parts of Five Points, waiting for someone he’d never met while a monsoon beat the shit out of the city. And while Coin and the Invisible College did something in the dangerous almost-reality of the Pleroma. Something big.

“You want another one, Pops?” the waitress said.

“Yes,” Eric said. “Yes, I do.”

He’d finished the other one and moved on to a third when the door swung open. The curl of rain-chilled air moved through the bar like a breath. Then five men walked in. Four of them could have been simple violence-soaked gangbangers. The fifth one, the big sonofabitch in sunglasses, had a rider. Eric couldn’t tell by looking whether it was a loupine or nosferatu or any of the other thousand species of unclean spirit that could crawl into a human body, but he could feel power coming off the man. Eric’s hand twitched toward the gun in his pocket, wanting the reassuringly solid grip under his fingers. But that would be poor form.

The big sonofabitch approached and loomed over Eric, just close enough to be a provocation. The other four split up, two standing by the door, two lounging close to Eric with a fake casual air. Apart from the radio blaring out a hip-hop tune, the bar had gone silent.

“You’re Tusk,” Eric said. “Nice belt buckle you’ve got there. Shiny.”

“Who the fuck are you, old man?” the big sonofabitch asked. His breath smelled like creosote. Loupine, then. A werewolf.

“My name’s Eric Heller. I’m looking for someone to do a job for me.”

“We look unemployed?” the big sonofabitch asked. The two who weren’t by the door smiled mirthlessly. “You think some Anglo motherfucker just come in here and whistle, we gonna jump?”

Eric reached up and plucked the sunglasses off the big sonofabitch. The black eyes met his. Eric pulled his will up from his crotch, up through his belly and his throat, pressing cold qi out through his gaze. The big sonofabitch tilted his head like a dog hearing an unfamiliar sound. The others stirred, hands reaching under jackets and shirts.

“I’m looking for someone to do a job, friend,” Eric said, pressing the glasses into the man’s blacksmith-thick hand. “If it’s not you, it’s not you. No offense meant.”

The big sonofabitch shook his head once, but it wasn’t really a refusal. Eric waited.

“Who are you?” the loupine asked. The humanity had left the voice. Eric was talking straight to the rider now.

“Eric. Alexander. Heller. Ask around,” he said. “I can offer you the Mark of Brute-Loka. Might be useful to someone in your position.”

The black eyes went wider.

“What do you want for it? You want someone killed?”

“I want someone killed,” Eric agreed softly. Everyone was quiet. Quiet as the grave. “You want to talk about it here with all these nice people around? Or should we go someplace private?”

“Chango,” the big sonofabitch said. One of the men by the door stepped forward, lifting his chin. “Get the car.”

Eric swilled down the last of his drink, and the big son-of-abitch stepped back enough to let him stand. Eric dropped two twenties on the table. A very generous tip. It always paid to be kind to the help.

Outside, the rain had slackened to merely driving. A black car pulled up to the curb, Chango at the wheel. The loupine and his three homies clustered around Eric, ignoring the downpour. Two of the three minions got in the back with Eric stuck between them. The loupine had a short conversation with the last guy, then took the front. The last gangbanger spat on the street and went back into the bar as the car pulled away. They drove east toward Park Hill. Eric didn’t speak.

For the first time that night, Eric felt that the plan was coming together. The muscle was the last piece he needed. The trick now was to fix the timing. The whole thing had to come together like clockwork, every element in place just when it needed to be there. Him, and the loupine, and the old-timer.

The driver sneezed. The thug to Eric’s left murmured “Gesundheit,” and Eric’s spine crawled with fear. Since when did Five Points gangbangers say gesundheit?

What the fuck was he sitting next to?

As casually as he could, he brought a hand to his mouth. He crushed the fresh sage and peppermint leaves in the cuff and breathed in the scent. His mind clicked into trance, the aroma acting as trigger. His eyes felt like they’d been washed clean. Everything around him was intensely real, the edges sharp, the textures vibrant. He could hear the individual raindrops striking the car. He felt each fiber of his shirt pressing against his skin. And the glamour fell away from the others. The ink of their markings seemed to well up from inside them like blood from a cut. The driver was entirely bald, labyrinthine tattoos rising from his collar and crawling up over his ears. The two beside Eric were just as marked, their faces covered with symbols and sigils.

It had been a setup from the start. The contact, the facedown at the bar, the creosote breath. There were no gangbangers. No loupine.

One of them glanced at Eric.

“He knows,” the guard said.

The big sonofabitch in the front was still a big sonofabitch. He turned, looking over his shoulder. His lips were black, his eyes set in a tangle of something half Arabic script, half spiderweb.

“Mr. Heller,” he said, as if they were meeting for the first time. His voice was low as tires against asphalt. With his senses scraped raw by the cantrip, Eric could feel the man’s breath on his skin.

“This isn’t what you boys think it is,” Eric said.

“We know what you’ve been doing, Mr. Heller,” the other man said. “It stops tonight. It stops now.”

With a despairing cry, Eric went for his gun.

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