Once Upon a Time, I missed the first part. This was the part where two Alaska state troopers pulled up to a large three-story house that looked like a wooden palace in the middle of nowhere. And I mean nowhere. The nearest town was Swelling, Alaska, five miles away and not so much a town as a truck stop with a glandular condition. The state troopers were responding to a 911 call from one Anna Sharpe, who claimed to be trapped in her attic by a bear that had broken into her house and killed her husband.
The reason I gave a damn was that one of the responding officers was Bob Franklin, the son of Lily Alguvuk. Well, technically I suppose he was the son of Lily Franklin, but there are legal names and real names. I should know; I have several names on several driver’s licenses, but my real name is John Charming. That’s right, Charming. You’d change your name a lot too. Oh, and by the way, I’m cursed.
Anyhow, Bob Franklin wasn’t any kind of tracker, which is ironic, since his grandfather, George Alguvuk, had been one of the greatest wendigo hunters since Jack Fiddler and also was one of my few actual friends. Bob hadn’t known his grandfather, though. Lily had wanted to find a safe home for her baby, far away from her father’s dangerous lifestyle, and she had left her name and her tribe behind when she married Doug Franklin, a white man who owned a lot of small businesses: a pizza parlor, a convenience store that had a gas pump and sold moose barbecue, a pawnshop…those kinds of places. Safe places. Then Lily had eventually left Bob and his father too. Bob kind of tangled his mother’s abandonment and her ethnicity all together into one big emotional snarl and silently resented both of them without ever examining why too closely. I imagine Doug Franklin was a big help in this regard.
Bob noticed that there weren’t any large animal tracks in the snow around the Sharpes’ house. He walked all the way around it just to be sure. There also weren’t any broken windows or doors. What kind of bear breaks into a house and leaves an intact door closed behind it?
Bob didn’t think it was a prank call, though. He had a bad feeling, and Bob trusted his instincts. His grandfather had possessed the sight, and such gifts tend to pass down family lines, so Bob was probably wise to do so. He took an 870 Remington shotgun up to the front door, while his partner, Andy Wilson, stayed in the car in case there really was a bear in the house and he had to call for back-up or to get a running Bob the hell out of there fast. Bob put an ear to the door and heard the faint sound of yelling from somewhere within the house. He kicked the front door open….and saw one of the strangest things he had ever seen.
A man was spread out all over the front hallway. On the walls. The ceiling. The floor. And lying right in the middle of the carnage that used to be Ryan Sharpe was a teacup poodle. The dog, small enough to hold in the palm of a hand, was matted with blood and bits, but none of the gore had come from its own body. Upon closer examination, there wasn’t a scratch on it.
The teacup poodle was dead.
Just to be clear, I love Alaska. I even lived there for ten years, which is longer than I’ve stayed in any one place since I came down with a mild case of werewolf. But Alaska has its dark sides and its dangers like any other place, and some that aren’t like any other place. It is a beautiful state, but there is starkness there, and squalor. I suppose the contrast lies in the fact that Alaska attracts people who don’t like rules, but it is unforgiving of those who lack self-discipline. It is not a place for fools, but what place is without them?
In any case, I could see where Swelling got its name. The town proper, if I can use that phrase unironically, wasn’t more than a half mile by a half mile and looked like a painful bump that had risen on the ass of Alaska. There was a pipeline station to the north, a cannery to the south, and an Inupiat village to the east. Swelling had probably started as a pit stop, become infected by slight success, and then reached its full growth depressingly soon because the places it catered to were largely self-sufficient.
The advent of technology had hit Alaskan towns like Swelling pretty hard in recent years, as soon as the kinds of businesses that housed employees in work dorms realized that paying for Internet connections and flat-screen TVs and coffee bars resulted in less worker turnover. Video stores, bookstores, Internet cafés, radio stations, and local newspapers had all felt the same blow that their kindred in less remote states felt a decade earlier, and the shadow of UPS and online ordering just kept on extending over small businesses and stores.
But maybe I was making too many assumptions. Maybe Swelling always had sucked.
There weren’t many buildings taller than one story, and almost all of them were wood, made from planks, not logs. They all looked old. In fact, the only thing that looked new in Swelling was the highway that ran beside it.
I drove through the town, occasionally coughing and blowing mucus out of my nostrils and lungs. Werewolves don’t normally get sick, but the common cold is one of the few diseases that evolves as quickly as the immune systems of my kind. Colds do burn through me fast if I rest and drink fluids, but I hadn’t slept in forty-eight hours. Dehydrated from coffee abuse, I was balloon-headed, tired, and sore.
I found my destination a few miles outside Swelling: a lone, squat, brown bar called The Inn of the Line. Maybe this was a reference to pipeline workers who thought driving this far was worth it if it meant getting away from the eyes of supervisors. Or maybe it was just a rare case of truth in advertising.
The place looked like a dive. Maybe even a plunge. Hell, it was a drowning accident.
I parked my Jeep next to a truck. There were no parking lanes or lot lights, and only six vehicles were present.
“Okay, I’m here,” I told the woman talking on my Jeep’s radio. It was the only radio station that my car was receiving, which was unfortunate because the woman talking had stopped speaking English and lapsed into Inupiat about two hundred miles earlier. That wasn’t unusual in itself, not this far into Alaska. What was odd was that the woman’s voice wasn’t a recording and it sure as hell wasn’t live. Lily Alguvuk had died six years earlier.
Every time I thought of Lily, I thought of the last conversation I’d had with her more than thirty years ago. She had been a lost soul as a teenager, and I had been healing and hiding at George’s house. You’re on a bad path, Lily, I had told her, and it’s going to take you to some bad places. You call me when you want to get off of it and you’re too proud or ashamed to ask your father for help, you hear me?
I could still hear the dead woman’s voice coming through my radio after I turned the Jeep’s engine off and shut the door behind me. Lily had been a pretty powerful psychic herself.
I got my guitar case out of the back of the Jeep and reconnoitered. It looked a little strange, but at that point all I knew was that a restless spirit was giving me directions on where to find her son. I had no idea about the why of it, but I knew the what of it was bound to be bad, and walking around a bar at night with a guitar case was a lot less alarming than brandishing a Japanese long sword.
I try to observe local customs when I can.
The bar was a little close to a river, but it hadn’t been that long ago that it was as easy to supply places in this part of Alaska by boat as it was to do it by truck. There was a dock behind the bar, but if there was a boat that went with it, the craft was being stored somewhere else until the waters unfroze.
As I approached the rear of the bar, I heard the sound of large dogs pulling air through their nostrils; not the snuffling noise made when a canine puts its nose to the ground, but the soft sucking hiss of a dog identifying scents in the wind. Something big and dark—no, three big and dark somethings—silently detached themselves from the shadows as I rounded the corner and padded off. Much bigger than wolves, slightly smaller than buffalo. I halted and watched those black forms head for the woods without growls or whimpers. Well, okay, maybe I whimpered a little. Don’t judge.
A slice of moonlight cut across one of the things and peeled off a layer of shadow although it was still impossible to be entirely sure where the darkness ended and the creature began. It was a dog. A black dog, as broad as a St. Bernard in the head and the chest but taller, its waist tapering down into muscular legs. The three shapes reached the trees to the west. Two of them lay down and disappeared from view, their forms merging into the shadows, but the last one remained standing, turned, and looked at me. Oddly, the moonlight reflecting off its eyes seemed slightly reddish. Then the third beast also settled its weight low to the ground so as to wait there at the edge of the woods.
Wait for what? Or more likely, for whom? Dogs don’t kill randomly, even supernatural ones; that’s why so many people have seen death hounds over the centuries and lived. Dogs will kill to defend themselves, to eat, to protect territory, or because they have been commanded to do so and given the scent of a specific prey. I had the distinct impression that these hunters were prowling around the bar waiting for a particular target and didn’t want to make a lot of noise that might scare if off.
I bent down and opened my guitar case. Removing the guitar, I pried open the false bottom of the case and considered the katana that I kept there. If nothing else, it would make me feel better, but I decided to leave it be. There was also a flask of holy water, a vial of blessed salt, a small flask of absinthe, a Taoist ceremonial incense candle, a Glock 17, a blowgun, and four tranquilizer darts tipped in different substances. All were bound to the case by Velcro straps.
I took out the vial of blessed salt. There was no way that I was going to try to chase the dogs; they might let me catch them. But I did slowly advance until I could see the place where the dogs had originally been resting, next to several recently split pieces of wood and an ax that had been left embedded in a log despite the harsh weather.
My nose was too clogged up to get a scent and my ears weren’t working much better, but my eyes were fine. The moonlight was dim, but there was snow on the ground and those had been big dogs. There should have been tracks, and there weren’t. Not any.
I looked at the form that was just barely visible there at the edge of the woods, unnaturally still and silently regarding me with absolutely no fear.
Son of a bitch.
Well, probably not, actually.
The inside of the bar was just as brown and almost as dark as the outside, a man cave, although there were a few women with remarkably poor judgment looking for warmth inside it. There were no pool tables, which surprised me, or wine glasses, which didn’t. Booths against the walls, chipped square tables in between, one huge counter cutting off the back end of the building with truncated hallways on either side of it. Bathrooms down the left one. God knows what down the right. The volume on the lone television set was turned down, probably because there was a soccer game on. A Southern rock song I hadn’t heard in decades was playing, but I couldn’t see from where.
I went straight to a bar stool and laid my guitar case on the floor. There was a long mirror against the rear wall, and the guy who stared back at me from it looked like hell: worn down to muscle and gristle, tired, irritable, and struggling to focus. There were dark circles under his blue eyes and a red patch of irritated skin under his nose. Usually he at least tried for detached or insouciant, but now he just looked sullen and miserable.
The bartender ignored me. That was fine. The front plate of my skull felt like an eggshell that my sinuses were trying to crack, and I used the extra time to take in the scenario that was playing out.
My first priority was Bob Franklin, but my eyes were immediately drawn to a vaguely Scandinavian-looking guy in a booth instead. The guy looked like an early short-haired Mick Jagger on steroids, but he only looked young physically. His eyes were old and cold and his clothes were too expensive for this place, but no one was going to give him grief about it. He radiated a kind of dark and hungry confidence that attracts the weak and repels the predatory.
I mentally labeled him “Prick Jagger.”
Prick Jagger wasn’t alone, although he really should have been. There were three people worshipping at his altar. One of them was a younger, blander, blonder version of Prick, most likely his protégé. The other two were probably local women, both approaching forty and desperately trying to turn around and run in the opposite direction. They were too drunk to recognize the sardonic gleam in the man’s eyes while he bought them drinks.
The man who was obviously Bob Franklin was sitting at the bar. Tan skin. Short, black hair. Dark brown eyes. Ass about to get kicked.
Bob was a squat kid. Google the Great and Terrible, modern-day god of privacy invasion, had said that Bob was a cop, but this was how I thought of him immediately: as a kid. Bob was built like a pit bull, a short round-shouldered block of muscle, but there was something about him that seemed angry and innocent and earnest all at the same time. The motto of the Alaska State Police is “In Honor There Is Hope,” and Bob looked like he believed it. He was sitting at the bar, and I could see a vague outline of what was probably a gun holstered at his side beneath the bulky North Slope jacket.
And last there was the small cluster of asshats about six feet away from me, gathered around Bob Franklin and refusing to be ignored, though Bob was trying. Bob kept his eyes focused on Prick Jagger in the bar mirror even while the jackals were closing in. The bartender should have been taking steps to defuse the situation, but he was one of them, a young guy who took pains with his long, brown hair and whose red cotton shirt was unbuttoned, as if to reveal a smooth, sexy chest instead of thermal underwear. He was smiling and enjoying himself, but it was a mean smile.
A six-foot-five blond guy wearing thermals underneath sleeveless brown overalls was standing a little too close on Bob’s left. His hands were large and battered-looking. An average-sized man with a shaven skull and a porn mustache was sitting on a stool and leaning in from Bob’s right. And a fat, unshaven man with tinted glasses wearing a green T-shirt under a sleeveless vest was sitting slightly off to the side, a hanger-on. He would be the weak one who knew better but tagged along because the others let him.
What was a big shark like Prick Jagger doing in this small pond? Why was Lily Alguvuk’s son trying to keep an eye on him? And what did any of those things have to do with death hounds waiting outside the bar?
I had no idea.
I stood up, reached over the bar, got a mug, and filled it myself with the nearest beer on tap.
“What are you doing?” Now the bartender was looking over at me, the smile gone. His voice was flat and his face looked as if it had never expressed a kind or unselfish thought in its life.
“Your job,” I said, and slipped a twenty on the bar. “I figure one of us ought to.”
He kept looking at me, but I wasn’t giving him anything he knew what to do with. “Leave something for a tip,” he advised.
Then he and his friends returned their attention to Bob.
“You can do it,” the big blonde said. His voice had that fake friendliness that bullies like to adopt when they want to prolong their pleasure. It’s a kind of false hope. I know this is a lie, and you know this is a lie, but maybe if you humiliate yourself by pretending to believe me, I won’t kick your ass. Come on. Just play along. You don’t want me to get upset, do you? This is the closest I ever get to feeling clever.
“Just sing a little bit,” the bartender suggested. “Do you know ‘Tiny Bubbles’? You got to know ‘Tiny Bubbles!’ Everyone from Hawaii knows ‘Tiny Bubbles.’”
“I doubt that,” Bob said. He wasn’t scared. Maybe Bob still thought that he could flash his badge and get out of this if he had to. Or maybe he thought they didn’t know he had a gun. Or maybe he was just George Alguvuk’s grandson.
“Sure, man,” the bartender said, still acting like he was just having fun. “Don Ho. Your people got to know Don Ho. He’s the only famous Hawaiian singer there is.”
“I doubt that too,” Bob said levelly, still not looking at any of them. “But I’m not from Hawaii. My mother was Inupiat.”
“INOOPOOWHAT?” The guy with the mustache was a worse actor than the other two, and they weren’t getting any nods from the Academy.
“He means he’s an Eskimo,” the big blonde said, horrified. “But that can’t be right. We don’t get any Eskimos in here.”
Oh, for God’s sake.
“Could you guys speak up?” I asked. “I want to make sure I’m getting all of this.”
They all looked over at me then. I was holding up the smartphone I had purchased because Bob Franklin’s phone number was on the Internet and there are stalker apps that will track cell phones and provide you with their GPS coordinates. I hadn’t realized that Lily Alguvuk’s ghost would be channeling through a radio station and interfering with any other kind of transmission the whole trip. Now the presence of ghost dogs outside was messing up any chance of getting a signal, but they didn’t know that.
“I’m thinking of calling it Loud Mouthed Racist Assholes and posting it on YouTube,” I said.
I knew as soon as I said it that the last comment had gone too far. Normally I’m pretty good at talking mean drunks down, but between the headache and the exhaustion and the irritation I was having a hard time thinking clearly. I guess what I’m saying is, I screwed up. I do that sometimes.
The blond was one of those drinkers who skips any of the middle steps between a bad idea and a bad decision. He tried to whirl off his bar stool with a back fist in motion, and I smashed the beer mug in my right hand against the sweet spot between his left forehead and his temple before he was finished lurching unevenly. The big blond dropped in a spray of beer and blood and glass shards, a loose flap of skin hanging off bone.
I kept going with my motion. The bartender was trying to slip his right hand back, probably to reach beneath the bar, but I was closer to him now, jamming the glass handle that was all that was left of my beer mug down over his wrist and trapping his hand.
“Hey,” Bob protested, and I dropped the cell phone and punched the bartender on the bridge of his nose with the three foremost knuckles of my left hand. His head snapped back and his body went stumbling after it. His skull didn’t stop until it bounced off the bar mirror, leaving fault-line cracks that made a snowflake design in the glass. He slumped to the floor.
Porn Mustache tried to hide behind Bob’s broad back while he went for the gun beneath Bob’s jacket, bending slightly to the right, and Bob slipped off the barstool and turned, slamming his elbow into the side of the guy’s head hard. Porn Mustache rebounded off the bar before hitting the ground.
The fourth guy, Weak-suck, had his palms up. “Hey…”
Weak-suck’s weight was draped over both sides of his barstool, and by the time he got his broad ass off it, Bob’s knee was coming up. The knee met Weak-suck’s groin as his feet were touching the floor. Weak-suck started to hunch over, but Bob’s uppercut stopped his face before it got very far. When the fourth man hit the floor, the whole bar shook.
“Easy, Bob,” I said as he turned around. “I’m on your side.”
But Bob wasn’t reaching for his gun the way I thought he would be. Bob was looking at the empty booth where his quarry had been sitting. The fight, if you could call it that, hadn’t lasted long, but Prick Jagger and his young apprentice had been by the door and already had ushered the two women out of there.
Which suggested to me that Prick Jagger had been waiting for the violence to break out.
“What took you so long?” Bob said disgustedly.
Bob and I agreed to put off introductions for the moment. The four idiots all had pulses, though Porn Mustache didn’t look good. He was lying on his side puking a thin, sour pool of beer treacle without waking up, and I was willing to bet he had a concussion. Bob had brought zip ties and bound all four men’s hands after I duct-taped a couple of napkins to the blond’s forehead and stuck some tissues up the bartender’s nose. Bob also confiscated their cell phones, a Ziploc bag with four white pills in it, a .38, a plastic vial, and a folding buck blade, although I don’t know if they call them that anymore.
“Look at this,” Bob said, and put a crisp stack of hundred-dollar bills on the edge of the bar with the other goodies. “All of these morons had three of these, except the bartender. He had eleven.”
Two thousand dollars. A nice even number. I didn’t bother to see if the serial numbers were sequential.
“Prick Jagger paid the bartender to have you jacked up,” I mused absently while rummaging behind the bar for anything that might be useful against the ghost dogs outside. A loaded shotgun and a box of shells. A big cardboard cylinder full of salt. A huge bag of straws. A cigarette lighter. Another roll of duct tape. A few bottles of alcohol that would burn if properly motivated. Six sharp knives of varying length and utility. I didn’t see any unlicensed nuclear accelerator backpacks, dammit. “And the bartender lied to his friends about how much they were getting paid.”
“I guess I’m not cut out for undercover work,” Bob said glumly and began kicking the bottom of his attackers’ shoes to finish waking them up.
“You need practice,” I agreed.
Porn Mustache still wouldn’t wake up, but his three friends were very contrite after Bob showed them his badge and indicated their possessions on the bar. “Hey, that’s our goddam’ money, asshole!”
“It’s counterfeit, dumbass,” I lied. “Bob here could take you in just for having that crap in your wallets. So shut up, get the hell out of here, and be grateful.”
The bartender seemed morally outraged. “I have to close up!”
“The guy who hired you to beat up a police officer might send someone else now.” Explaining that three death hounds were waiting in the darkness outside until they found Bob Franklin alone didn’t seem wise. I came around the bar and knelt down in front of the bartender. “So Bob and I are going to stay here and have a few more drinks. And you’re going to make sure you’re not around.”
He tried to say something else, and I reached out and casually broke his right index finger. Bob looked like he wanted to protest but didn’t. “You’re in the middle of something you don’t understand. Shut up and get out while you still can.”
I actually had an ulterior motive for breaking the bartender’s finger. If I had broken the blond’s, he would have come back with a hunting rifle or a baseball bat, and if I had broken the hanger-on’s, nobody else would have cared. But the bartender was obviously the one who made decisions for the group, and if he made run for it, he would take his friends with him. I also wanted the bartender to take Porn Mustache to the hospital, and that outcome seemed a lot more likely if the leader had a reason to go himself.
If Lily’s son was going to kill a man, I wanted it to be for a better reason than a bar fight.
“At least give us our cell phones back!” The bartender tried to sound aggressive but it came out as a whine.
Another finger later he stopped arguing.
“What do you know about all this?” Bob’s hand had yet to even twitch for his gun, which I thought was interesting.
“Nothing,” I assured him, leaning over the bar to pick up a stool from the other side. “The only reason I’m here is because your mother told me to find you as fast as I could.”
Something tightened behind Bob’s face. “My mother is dead.”
“So you see my problem,” I said.
Bob made a sound somewhere between a grunt and a groan. It didn’t sound like agreement. I’m not actually sure what kind of sound is appropriate when a stranger brings up the mother who died of alcohol poisoning years after she abandoned you, but I knew then that Bob had seen his mother’s ghost before, and he hadn’t found it a life-affirming experience. It was in his eyes, something haunted and resigned. Besides, he believed me, and that was just weird.
“Who are you?” Bob asked.
I sighed heavily. “I’m your father.”
He froze. Face. Muscles. All of him.
“Just kidding,” I said. “I’ve always wanted to say that.”
Bob wasn’t a very creative cusser, but once he got started he was an enthusiastic one. “Who are you really?”
I hesitated. I don’t hand out my real name lightly, but screw all of the king’s horses and all of the king’s men—when the woman I loved died, it had been George Alguvuk who helped put me back together again. Maybe there were still cracks and a few pieces missing, but I owed George and I missed George, and he had died of old age before I could even begin to repay him.
“I’m a friend of your mother’s family,” I said. “My name is John Charming.”
He thought I was still messing with him. His mouth twisted in a half smile. “Seriously.”
“I am being serious.”
“Charming. Like the prince who’s always rescuing damsels in distress?”
“What are you smiling about?” I asked. “Guess who that makes the princess?”
Bob got a little impatient then. “So you guys talk to the dead, is that it?”
I set the stool sideways on the floor and began judiciously stomping on it to break off its long legs. “Who are these ‘you guys’ you speak of?”
“The no-color people,” he replied impatiently.
“We’re called Caucasians, Bob.” I spat something vile into a small metal sink behind the bar and turned the water on. The adrenaline was wearing off and that simple motion made my neck hurt and my head throb. “No need to be rude.”
He didn’t laugh or sneer. Bob didn’t show any emotion except a sort of slow burning watchfulness. His grandfather had been the same way under pressure. Not dense, but narrowly focused, scraped clean of any emotion that wasn’t relevant to survival. “I don’t see anything when I look at you. No colors. Everybody has colors.”
I took a bar napkin and blew a long, liquid aria from my ongoing snot opera into it. “Those colors are called an aura, Bob, and I have one, you just can’t see it. Psychics can’t sense me.”
All the knights of my old order are warded against mind magic. They are bound by a geas to preserve the secret of magickind’s existence, and that magical oath allows no competition. I am still bound too, though the men who trained me are hunting me now.
“But it sounds like you have your family’s gift,” I added.
Lily hadn’t considered it a gift. Being around her father, she saw horrible things, but George had refused to train Lily to face them like a warrior because she wasn’t his son. I’d liked George—hell, I’d loved the guy—but nobody is perfect, and George could be one stubborn dillhole. And Lily was just as strongheaded about being wrongheaded as he was. George had always been dismayed by the increasing substance abuse and suicide among his people during the last thirty years of his life, and he had practically painted a big red arrow that said REBEL THIS WAY for Lily. Or maybe Lily had tried to deal with her fear and her visions and her feelings of rejection by finding distractions. Or maybe since her mother had died of cancer when Lily was three, and her father wouldn’t let her model herself after him, Lily had found someone else that I never knew to hold up as a mirror.
I just didn’t know. I probably should have, but I didn’t. Lily had never considered me a very important part of her life, just a weird friend of her father who dropped by every few years or so and didn’t seem to age, and Lily had enough weirdness in her life. And I tend to be blunt, and bluntness hadn’t been what Lily needed. She got enough of that from her father. So if I ever had any chance of having some small, positive impact on Lily’s life, I had failed her. That’s the truth of it.
I coughed to clear my throat. “Where have you seen guys like me before anyway? The no-color ones, I mean.”
Bob answered grudgingly. “Whenever there’s some kind of strange animal attack or weird psycho stuff, one of you guys shows up claiming to be from a hunting magazine or Fish and Wildlife or something, then people start disappearing, and there’s some crap explanation that doesn’t make sense but makes more sense than anything else. Like that hermit who turned cannibal and wandered off into a snowstorm, and everyone decided he went crazy because of bath salts.”
They were still using that one? Sounded like my old order all right.
“I’ve been waiting for one of you guys to show up. I didn’t expect you to talk about my mother, though.”
I found a pile of rags that were probably meant for one-time use—those special occasions when customers vomited or bled possibly infected blood or crapped or wet themselves. I straightened up so Bob could see me but kept searching beneath the bar. “Why were you expecting one of us? And why were you trying to stake out Prick Jagger?”
Instead of answering me, he asked: “What are you doing?”
I picked up one of the broken stool legs. “I’m going to make some torches. Just tell me why I’m here, Bob. Why were you expecting someone like me? What have you gotten yourself into?”
And Bob began to tell me about the wild animal attack on Anna Sharpe’s house.
This is how you make a portable salt ring using a stick of gum, a Post-it note, some regular-sized bendy straws, a container of Morton’s table salt, and some duct tape while listening to someone describe a paranormal incident:
- Take a small stick of gum and start chewing it.
- Smush the tip of a bendy straw with your finger, then force half of that smushed end downward into a bent triangle, as if you were making a fold while wrapping a Christmas gift.
- Shove the smushed, compressed end of the straw into the end of another straw, and if you’ve done it right, the triangle you made in the original straw will unfold itself once it’s slid into its new sheath. If it doesn’t, keep trying until it does. You’re making a conduit that has to maintain flow.
- Use the gum you’ve been chewing to plug the south end of the plastic pipeline you just made.
- Wrap the connection with duct tape.
- Make a small funnel by spiraling a Post-it note in on itself and pour salt into the north end of the straw.
- Periodically hold the straw up against a light to make sure that salt is forming an unbroken line through it.
- Stop and waste time explaining to anyone who asks that unbroken circles of salt are a powerful defense against specific types of supernatural creatures, particularly spirits that do not have a physical body or are possessing someone else’s.
- Keep repeating this process, stopping to fill your pipeline with salt every two straws or so.
- When you think you have a big-enough line of straws, bend them into a curving circle and remove the gum from the plugged end. Connect the two ends. There will be some spillage no matter how careful you are, but as long as you’ve been filling up the straws as much as possible, it should be fine.
I used thirty-two straws in all while Bob talked.
“The guy you’re calling Prick Jagger is really Einar Magnusson,” Bob explained. “He’s Anna Sharpe’s brother. He showed up to collect her from the police station, and I knew right away that there was something awful and wrong about that guy. I’d never seen colors like his before. He was all muddy brown and red, but the colors were getting mixed in with this gray black, like they were diseased. I mean, I’ve seen black colors before, but this was different. It was like his colors were getting sucked into a blackness and spit out again, flushed back into his system like a backed-up spirit toilet.”
“A backed-up spirit toilet,” I repeated.
Bob didn’t waver. “And his spirit’s just going to keep getting blacker and blacker.”
I finished folding and tucking several knotted rags around one of the chair legs and pressed a thumbtack I’d scrounged into the cloth ends to anchor them there. I then started to do the same to another chair leg. “So you started following him on your own time.”
Bob shoved his hands in his pockets and shrugged uncomfortably.
“Okay,” I said. There was a large can of lighter fluid next to the microwave of all places.
“Okay?!?” Apparently Bob found my word choice questionable.
I located a flat pan that somebody had used to hold paint at some point. “I think I’m up to speed now.”
“You are?” he said incredulously.
“Yes.” I emptied the lighter fluid into the pan. “Einar is a necromancer. That means he messes around with death magic. He summoned a death hound to murder his sister’s wealthy husband. It was supposed to be an untraceable crime, but you started following Einar around anyway and weren’t very subtle about it. So he came to this out-of-the-way dump, knowing you’d follow him, and paid that bartender two thousand dollars to get his friends to beat you up while he left here with a couple of alibis. I think he told the goons to throw you out back. Either way, there are at least three of the things that killed Ryan Sharpe waiting outside to kill you as soon as you step out of this bar. I figure they’ll probably drag you into the woods and tear you into mulch.”
“Wait…WHAT?!?” Bob said. Finally, an expression made it all the way through to his face, deepening and changing its texture like an emotional bruise. Anger. Fear. Denial. Belief.
“That’s actually good news,” I assured him. “If the death hounds are under orders to wait until you come out of the bar, we have time to prepare.”
“Prepare for what?” Bob began pacing. “This is bullshit!”
My patience snapped. “No, you saying it’s bullshit is bullshit! You’ve been getting glimpses of a shadow world your whole life. You couldn’t let this go because you’re tired of knowing but not knowing. Am I wrong?!?”
Bob didn’t say anything.
I began soaking the cloth ends of the torches in the lighter fluid. I was going to have to turn them every minute. Enough lighter fluid to fill a mop bucket would have been more convenient, but I thought I could saturate the cloth adequately with what I had. Five minutes. I could afford to take five more minutes. I couldn’t afford to take less. It was cold and windy and dark out there, and I needed these torches to stay lit.
“You’re down the rabbit hole now, Bob,” I said. “But this isn’t Wonderland.”
“So how do we get rid of these things?” he asked glumly.
I told him.
Bob thought that was bullshit too.
This is what I couldn’t tell Bob in five minutes: death hounds are something of a sensitive topic in the supernatural world.
That whole hellhound thing, for example? Total crap. The Bible doesn’t mention them. The Greek god of the underworld had a three-headed dog, but there was only one of them and the word Hell wasn’t in the Greeks’ vocabulary. The path to the Norse underworld, Hel, was guarded by a giant black dog, but Garm was a Fenris wolf. A blues singer named Tommy Johnson claimed he saw a black dog at the crossroads, but he also claimed he saw a black bull and a black bird, and you don’t hear the term hellbull or hellcrow do you? It was Robert Johnson who later made that story so popular in the songs “Cross Road Blues” and “Hellhound on My Trail,” that people still confuse which Johnson did what.
The word hellhound is basically like the phrase reality television. A lot of people believe in it, but there’s no such thing and never has been.
This is the real story.
A long, long time ago, some cunning man or woman messing around with necromancy figured out a way to train and raise a guard dog, then sacrifice the animal so that its spirit would linger on, anchored to some physical object. The necromancer would then bury the magical anchor in the place that the necromancer wanted the dog’s spirit to guard. These were almost always cemeteries and crypts and tombs and pyramids because ancients used to bury fabulous wealth with their dead. It also had something to do with the way magic works. Like calls to like, and having the dead guard the dead made the spell more effective.
The creation of death hounds became a fairly common practice and spread from ancient Greece and Egypt to the Vikings, Romans, Celts, Normans, Gauls, and Britons. This is why stories of big, black supernatural dogs are far more common than stories of vampires or zombies in the old tales.
The Black Shuck. Gwyligi. The Dog of Darkness. The Black Dog of Winchester. The Demon of Tedworth. Mauthe Dhoog. The Aufhocker. The Kludde. The Coinn Iotair. The Galley-Trot. Ptoophagos. The Barghest. The Gytrash. The Saidthe Suaraighe. The Rizos. The Grim. The Rongeur D’Os. The Hounds of Rage. The Arctophonos. Church Grims. The Black Dogs of Bungay. I really could go on, but there’s not going to be a quiz later. Suffice it to say, all of these and more are stories about big, black, demonic dogs roaming around forests and swamps and moors long after the places they were guarding became abandoned ruins.
If you think of the supernatural world in terms of recycling, death hounds are like plastic bags. They’re useful for a short time, but then they just hang around for centuries causing problems and are almost impossible to get rid of.
This is why the creation of death hounds became a taboo practice; it was more out of practicality than morality. The knights of my old order got tired of being supernatural dogcatchers, and anyone associated with making death hounds was summarily hunted down and executed, no questions asked.
So the being Bob Franklin described from Anna Sharpe’s house was something old but also something new. If I understood the significance of that dead teacup poodle correctly, Einar Magnusson had figured out a way to use a comatose or dying dog as a physical vessel that a death hound could enter and transform.
Big deal, right? So what? But think about it. You drug a dog into some kind of brain-dead vegetative state. You summon a death hound’s spirit to enter that same dog’s body. The death hound then possesses the dog and forms a stronger, larger supernatural body around it. The comatose dog is like a battery in the middle of this supernatural exoskeleton, both powering that body and being moved around by it. But what happens when the original body in the middle of all that ectoplasm eventually dies from dehydration or exhaustion or trauma?
The problem of lingering death hounds is solved, that’s what. The link is severed. The death hound’s ectoplasmic body evaporates and leaves the original dog lying in its place, finally and completely dead. If Einar really had developed a method for creating temporary, disposable death hounds, and if word of that got around, then death hounds might become an acceptable practice under the terms of the Pax Arcana again.
The idea of someone raising dogs, training them, and then rewarding their loyalty by killing them and turning them into some kind of unnatural creature in a constant state of torment? Let’s just say that I didn’t want that to happen.
I like dogs.
I went running out of the front door fast, full-blast werewolf fast, wearing Bob Franklin’s North Slope jacket and stocking cap and carrying a torch in one hand and an improvised weapon in the other. The weapon was a blow dart whose rearmost end was wedged into the split tip of a broomstick handle and bound there tightly by duct tape.
There was a pickup truck parked close to the bar—Bob’s pickup truck, as a matter of fact—and I ran ten feet past it, then skidded and pivoted.
Death hounds were already tearing around opposite corners of the bar, and they were faster than me. Four supernaturally strong legs close to the ground are hard for a biped to beat. And I know what you’re thinking, and shut up; I’m not that kind of a werewolf.
I changed direction and charged the back of Bob’s pickup, pebble-sized bits of congestion rattling in my lungs as I jumped on the bed and kept going. I stepped on top of the cab and hurled myself toward the roof of the bar. The building was only one story tall and twelve feet away, and I cleared the edge easily, though I stumbled and skidded a bit on the low, sloped gravel surface. Veering left toward the front door, I counted the roof I’d cleared as three steps and really hoped that wasn’t too far off. Four steps, five steps, six steps…
The death hounds didn’t leap after me. They ran straight up the walls of the bar as if gravity were an affectation. I suppose for them it was.
Nine steps, ten steps, eleven steps…fortunately the gravel on the roof was embedded in hot tar to keep it from washing away and clogging the drains, so I didn’t skid as far as I could have when I stopped and turned.
A death hound was already in the air, leaping toward me. I stepped aside, but the odd thing I’d been hoping for occurred. The death hound’s body broke into thousands of shadow particles in midair. In the light of my torch, it looked as if the dog had dived into an invisible cheese grater. The corpse that landed dead on the roof behind me was an ordinary Alaskan husky. Whatever had been both animating it and being animated by it was gone.
I had a secret: directly beneath my feet, duct-taped to the ceiling of the bar, was the salt ring I’d encased in plastic straws. Bob was standing beneath the ring with a shotgun that was basically there to make him feel better. I was standing above it.
My exorcism-to-go zone had worked; the only problem was, I’d been hoping to lure all three death hounds into it.
The other two death hounds began to stalk around the perimeter of the salt-ring field, which I almost appreciated because it made it easier for me to mark its borders. Their massive heads came to my shoulder level and their eyes possessed a faint red glow. In the dim light, their massive teeth seemed to reflect stars and moon more brightly than mere physics could explain. They were growling, but they were also slowing down, their movements becoming more tentative. I don’t know how death hounds track their victims, if it’s by a physical or psychic scent. I was wearing some of Bob Franklin’s clothes and standing one story directly above Bob Franklin’s body, but still they were beginning to realize that something was off.
I lunged toward a second death hound and swished the torch in front of its face. Ordinary flames can’t really hurt death hounds, but they still have instincts left over from a very strong race memory, and all of those instincts tell them to avoid fire.
The death hound recoiled slightly and barked as the torch went past, and as soon as its mouth opened, I jammed the broomstick with a duct-taped dart down its maw. The dart was from my guitar case and tipped with mandrake juice. Juice from a mandrake root will force invading spirits out of bodies that they don’t belong in, provided the root really was man-shaped and dug out of the ground at dawn in spring. Don’t ask me why that last part matters. It’s magic crap.
If there was a physical dog body in there, surrounded by a ghost body, then the head was the place where the outer layers of its ghostly flesh would be thinnest. Or at least I hoped so. If not, I would have to shove that stick up the thing’s ass.
But the tip of the broom handle hit something flesh-like as it went down that huge throat, right before massive teeth turned my improvised spear into splinters.
The death hound shifted its weight backward and made a whimpering sound that was incongruous with that monstrous form. It whirled around in a short circle once, twice, three times, as if trying to find what was wrong with it, and then it melted. Strands of night ran off its body like black syrup and disappeared into more natural shadows, and then another Alaskan husky was lying at my feet.
One death hound left.
Shuddering, I hacked out a big hunk of disgusting and spit it across the roof, then kept coughing. When the violent spasms subsided, I threw the broken broomstick down while the last death hound circled me.
First things first. I drew out the fourteen-inch knife at my side. The blade was silver steel and deadly against were-beings, though that wouldn’t help me here.
I slit open the belly of the Alaskan husky at my feet, then physically removed its stomach from its body and cut the stomach open as well. It didn’t take me long to find what I was looking for: a hard, round, intact object. I held it up to my nose so close that the odor was perceptible even through the gore and congestion. It was a small sheet of horsehide, treated and folded and sutured together so that the tiny stave runes written on the inside of it would be protected from the stomach’s digestive acids as long as possible. The spell would be written in an ink blended from blood.
The anchor the death hound’s spirit was bound to.
I lit the object with my torch, just in case. Then I managed to drag the other dead husky into the circle, almost losing a hand in the process, and repeated the procedure.
The remaining death hound continued to pace about me in silent circles. It occurred to me that I could just wait this one out. In the old days, the death hound could have kept me pinned there for centuries if it had to, but Einar Magnusson’s Death Hounds 2.0 came with an expiration date.
But no. Too many variables. Einar was the real danger. The last thing he had seen was me interfering with his plans, and he was still out there somewhere. I didn’t want to be preoccupied or trapped if he came back. And Bob was doing exactly what I’d told him to do—nothing—but he was brave and young and male, so who knew how long that would last.
So I picked up the torch and sprinted for the backside of the roof. I was aiming for the direction where I’d seen an ax embedded in a log. The death hound almost had me, but jumping off the roof bought me some time. I didn’t try to roll or be smooth, just dropped in a sliding, stumbling landing. There were lumps of logs all over the ground half buried in snow, and I tripped on one in the dark but kept stumbling forward, ignoring a broken toe, and grabbed the handle of the ax one-handed as I lurched by, careening off a pylon and ricocheting onto the dock.
The death hound was silent behind me and had no heat or breath. I don’t know how I knew when to swish the torch behind me right as the damnable thing was about to sink its teeth into my spinal column, but I did. The hound faltered and I put on a last burst of speed, dropping the torch and running all-out with the ax in my right hand. When I leaped off the edge of the dock, the death hound was right behind me.
The ice was thick, but I came down hard, swinging the ax over my head with greater than human strength and bringing it down at the same time that my feet hit. The ax took a chunk out of the ice and my body weight finished the job. I broke through, collapsing ice in a wide swath, and the death hound plunged into the water after me.
There is a reason spirits won’t cross running water. Immersion in moving water is an anathema to unholy things brought to an unnatural semblance of life. The water is too resonant of birth or baptism or change. I had a brief glance of a dead husky’s body underwater, and that was the last I saw of the death hound. It was gone.
I almost was too. I hadn’t counted on being grabbed by deadly cold currents while I was plummeting down. Instead of coming up through the hole I’d made, I was pulled beneath thick, solid ice by black, rushing water. I treaded frantically to the surface and managed to flatten my body against ice. There was a pocket of air trapped to my left, and I sucked that burning iciness down my tortured lungs, but unfortunately it made me cough. The spasm weakened my blows against the frozen surface of the river, and I panicked then. I had no leverage and could barely feel my body at all, and I knew that as soon as I expelled all of the air in my lungs I was dead.
I don’t know how I broke through the ice; I really don’t. There was no science or discipline to it. It was blind luck and desperation.
The ax came free as I emerged through, and I managed to lash out with it and anchor the blade in firmer ice, then used the handle to help pull myself out of the river.
Maybe drowning wouldn’t have been such a bad idea. I heal faster than a normal person, but not when extreme cold has slowed down my molecular rate. I didn’t even have enough strength left in my hands to keep using the ax to anchor me; I had to use my forehead like an extra limb to rest my weight on and slide forward on my knees and elbows, inch by stinging inch. Inch by flinch. A flinch worm. Scraping my face across ice while I coughed and shook.
How did the old saying go? Inches only count in horseshoes and penis measurements and dragging yourself across ice with impaired circulation. Okay, I’m actually pretty sure that no one ever said that. But someone should have.
I had covered maybe six feet when the distinct click of a gun hammer being cocked caused me to lift up my head. Einar Magnusson’s apprentice was walking down toward the edge of the frozen river with the silhouette of some kind of pistol in his hand.
Somehow I managed to pull myself to my knees.
I watched whatever-his-name-was distribute his weight evenly as he pointed the handgun at me. The gun probably didn’t hold silver bullets, and it probably didn’t matter. I would bleed out on the ice in the cold while my heart and brain got in a race to see which one could shut down first as my body temperature continued to drop.
The apprentice straightened his spine slightly, blew out a sharp short breath whose sound carried over the ice, and died. Died with a sharp crack and a wet-meat smack that threw his shoulders forward and his chin out.
Behind my would-be killer, Bob Franklin emerged from the darkness with his shotgun held before him, I sank my head back down for a moment, and somehow Bob was magically next to me when I lifted it again, pulling me up and peeling off the wet jacket and propping my right arm over his left shoulder, half-carrying and half-guiding me off the ice. With something like panic I realized that I’d forgotten the ax.
We made our way back to shore slowly, and my teeth were chattering so violently that I was literally unable to talk. This turned out to be unfortunate. Bob was looking at our feet and didn’t see Einar Magnusson following the same path that his apprentice and Bob had just taken. I thumped Bob’s arm, but he thought I was having some kind of convulsion as Einar crouched over the body of his fallen apprentice and pressed a palm over the upper shoulder blades of the body. By the time Bob looked up, the necromancer had already begun some kind of spell.
I am no expert on magic. I know precisely as much about magic as I have to know to identify it or ward against it or get around it. I don’t like it, don’t trust it, and sure as hell don’t practice it. But there were hot fragments of shotgun load embedded in the apprentice’s neck, and I think Einar made physical contact with some of them. I think Einar took the blood smeared on his hand and the pellets and used his apprentice’s departing life force to establish a symbolic link between the ammo in the corpse’s neck and the ammunition remaining in Bob’s shotgun. I think Einar focused on the heat and amplified it.
What I do know for sure is that one of the shells in Bob’s shotgun exploded. Bob dropped the weapon with a startled scream and reeled back, his hand bleeding.
I did not stop. I kept shuffling forward, fumbling for the knife at my hip with dead fingers that refused to free it from its sheath.
Einar watched me calmly while he removed a fragment of horsehide from his coat pocket and held it before him. He gently draped the scrap of parchment over the back of his apprentice’s skull, and I felt a surge of something as dark and cold as river water wash through me instead of over me.
If Einar could summon death hounds using comatose dogs, what could he summon with a recently deceased human that he had known well and trained? What monstrous birth was about to take place?
Thankfully, I never found out.
The dead apprentice abruptly rolled over and grabbed Einar’s throat. Whatever Einar was beginning to chant was literally choked off by a liquid gurgle and the audible crunch of cartilage. He dropped instantly as if a magician had just made something inside his body disappear.
The dead apprentice propped itself up and turned its head, though as far as I could tell its eyes were unseeing. A smile—a tender, bizarre, completely inappropriate but beyond all boundaries smile—made that dead face light up with something eternal.
“Bobby,” Lily Alguvuk said through those dead lips. It wasn’t in the same register as the voice that had come through my car’s radio, but it had the same tone and intonation. A stream of Inupiat words followed.
That’s the last thing I remember.
I woke myself by coughing, propped up in the passenger seat of my Jeep while Bob drove. The heater was going full blast. My circulation was coming back, and my body wasn’t too happy about it. I was cold on the inside and hot on the outside, sweat dripping from clammy skin, sinuses so congested I could barely breathe. My hands felt three sizes too big and throbbed and stung. My brain was gone, unable to focus on anything except misery.
Bob looked over at me, and I hacked up something the size of a golf ball into my mouth. Grimacing sourly, I found the button that made my window open so that I could spit it outside. The cold air seemed to ignite on contact with my skin.
“Did you get my guitar case?” I croaked. My neck and head hurt too much to turn around and look. Bob nodded and I started to drift off again.
“That was my mother,” Bob said. “At the end.”
I tried to speak, then cleared my throat and managed: “Yes.”
“Can you believe that?” Bob asked angrily. It turned out that he wasn’t talking about ghosts. “She was crap as a mother my whole life, and she thinks she can just pop in for thirty seconds and make everything okay? Am I supposed to be grateful?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It was a hell of a thirty seconds.”
Bob’s face hardened and his hands gripped the wheel more tightly. “She never even taught me Inupiat. I don’t know what she said.”
“Yes you do,” I rasped.
The next time I woke up I was alone in the Jeep, parked in front of a long, brown building with a row of tall, uniformly shaped windows. It was either very late or very early and the parking lot was empty. I had no idea what the building was and never found out. I was thirsty, but I didn’t want to move to get anything out of the back of the Jeep and then I couldn’t.
I smelled awful. Whatever was smeared all over my body, I’m pretty sure it had something fermented in it. I was propped on a bench in a sweat lodge, my head resting on some kind of pillow or bundle. My brain felt like a white log on a fire and my mouth tasted like fish. Someone had been making me eat. The space between my ears was drying out, heating up, and popping. My skin was hot, but it was a good pain. It felt like I was being given a heat hug. A beaded dream catcher spun above my head, and when I reached up to touch it, I saw that markings had been made on my arms with some kind of red dye.
Somewhere on the floor below me, three men were chanting. I rolled my eyes with as little neck motion as possible and saw Bob Franklin stripped down to his waist and forming a rough circle with two other Inupiat, a very old man and a boy who hadn’t hit puberty yet. Bob’s face was intensely uncomfortable but his mouth was still shaping words that he didn’t understand.
This time when I closed my eyes I did it willingly. It was about as close to happily ever after as I get.
Did you enjoy DOG-GONE? Be sure to check out the other adventures of John Charming in CHARMED, I’M SURE, DON’T GO CHASING WATERFALLS and PUSHING LUCK get ready for the main event, John Charming’s full-length novel debut – CHARMING by Elliot James! John gets a short break from his days of relentless wandering while tending a bar under an assumed name in rural Virginia. He leads a peaceful, quiet life. That is, until a vampire and a blonde walked into his bar…