Read an Excerpt
Better Off Undead
There's something about being driven to prison that makes you think about the past.
The bad parts, especially: lost loves, mistakes you made, chances you never took, choices you came down on the wrong side of. Me, I'm thinking about a werewolf physician named Dr. Pete who saved my life on two separate occasions and got himself killed on attempt number three.
Well, not so much killed as erased, replaced by an alternate version of himselfa version with a different history, a different past in which he'd made some bad decisions. Hard to believe that gentle, caring Dr. Pete could ever have been a member of a crime family, but we all have skeletons in our closets, don't we? If I hadn't gotten a degree in criminal psychology and joined the FBI as a profiler, my own violent youth could have progressed into me becoming the kind of person I now hunt.
Okay, maybe not the people I hunt now, more like the perps I used to catch in my native realitythe one with M*A*S*H reruns and butterscotch ripple ice cream and thrift-store silver jewelry. Here, nobody even knows whata gun is, silver is a controlled substance, and butterscotchfor some bizarre reasonhasn't been invented. Here being a parallel world, an alternate version of planet Earth that exists in a dimension right next to the one I came from. I didn't travel here willingly, either; I was yanked out of my own apartment in a dreamlike stupor, with nothing more than my laptop, a large handgun, and a crate of ammunition for company. Seems the residents of this reality had a problem with a crazed human psycho killing them off, and they needed an expert to deal with it.
I call this world Thropirelem, because the word neatly encapsulates the three main types of citizens: werewolves (thropes), vampires (pires), and golems (lems). Human beings make up a meager 1 percent of the worldwide population, less than a million people, and I'm one of them.
I now work for the National Security Agency, based out of this world's Seattle, and I've largely adapted to my new existence. My current employers keep insisting they'll send me home one day, just as soon as I catch one Aristotle Stoker: descendant of the infamous Bram, leader of the Free Human Resistance, and prolific serial killer. Hasn't happened yet, though I've come close a few times.
In the meantime I'm being kept busy. The supernatural races are immune to most diseases including mental illness, which means they have very little experience with full-blown crazy. That is, they had little experienceuntil Stoker circulated a subliminal message buried in an Internet video, footage of an Elder God designed to make everyone who saw it into two things: (a) living mummies, trapped inside their own immobile bodies for all eternity; and (b) nuts.
With Dr. Pete's help I managed to reverse the first condition, but the second one has proven more pervasive. Since millions of thropes and pires worldwide saw the videohumans and lems couldn't perceive itinsanity has become a booming industry. Many, many fanged or furry lunatics, and just one person who understands how the homicidal ones think.
All of which is weighing pretty heavily on my mind as Stanhope Federal Penitentiary gets closer. I've accomplished some good since I got to this world, but I've screwed up plenty, tooand right now it feels like I'm heading straight for my biggest mistake of all.
"Nickel for your thoughts?" my partner says. That would be Charlie Aleph, a golem composed of three hundred pounds of black volcanic sand poured into a transparent plastic skin and wrapped in a seven-hundred-dollar double-breasted suit with matching fedora.
"Where I come from it's a penny."
"Same here. You just look like you might have more than one." He pauses. "Could be wrong, though."
Charlie owns the copyright to the word deadpan, and he's filed an application for wiseass. Think Humphrey Bogart by way of the Terminator and you'll have an idea of his style. But he dresses better than either of them.
He's the one driving me to Stanhope, where I have an appointment with a lycanthrope named Tair. That's what he calls himself these daysbut when I knew him, his name was Adams. Dr. Peter Adams.
"Thinking about Dr. Pete," I say.
"He was good people."
"I know. My fault he isn't anymore."
"No, it's not. You didn't stab him with the Midnight Sword."
"He shouldn't have even been there."
"His choice. Gotta respect that."
"Me and respect aren't exactly best buds, Charlie."
He nods, one glossy black hand on the steering wheel. "You got me there."
"More like Facebook friends. You know, the kind that lurks in the background and never posts anything."
"Then you unfriend them and they send you an angry three-page e-mail demanding to know why you think you're better than them and that they've never forgiven you for stealing their boyfriend in the fourth grade."
I sigh. "Tell me I'm doing the right thing, Charlie."
"Why? You suddenly gonna start listening to me?"
"No, but it's a good starting point for an argument."
"Like that's a requirement. Most people need a reason to argueyou just need a place."
"I do not."
"Yeah, you're right."
"You call this an argument?"
"If I do, will you disagree with me?"
He shrugs. "What the hell. You're doing the right thing, Jace."
"I sure hope so ..."
The last time I was in Stanhope, I was almost bitten by a redheaded werebitch named Cali Edison. This time I intend to be a lot more careful.
The guy handling intakes is a stocky lem with the same high-gloss, transparent skin over black sand Charlie has, and the same slightly irritated, slightly bored demeanor I've seen in too many prison guards. He checks our credentials, makes us stand in a warded circle to tell him if we're carrying any mystic contraband, confiscatesCharlie's short sword and the two spring-loaded holsters filled with silver ball bearings he wears up either sleeve, and more or less ignores my gun. It's not that he's incompetentit's that a global spell cast in the twelfth century has made the very concept of a firearm seem ridiculous here since then. Despite the fact that my Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan has the power to put a basketball-size hole in his chest, the guard is incapable of viewing it as anything more than a toy.
"What is that thing, anyway?" he says, eyeing it in my holster. "Some kind of hair dryer?"
"Yeah. Does a real good job of blowing things away."
The guard shakes his blocky, hairless head. "Well, keep an eye on it. Lot of thropes in here are vain enough to want something like that. Probably try to steal it if you give 'em a chance."
"I'll keep that in mind."
Tair's already waiting in the interview room, sitting on a wooden chair and chained at the neck, wrists, and ankles to a steel post with just enough silver in it to make him very uncomfortable if he tries to change form. More precautions than they took with Cali, but Tair's already developed a rep as a dangerous customer in the short time he's been incarcerated here. Of course, a life sentence for treason will give you a pretty solid foundation to build on.
He smiles at me when Charlie and I walk in, the same open, slightly wry smile that Dr. Pete used to give me. I wonder if he's been practicing itthe way Tair leered at me every time we met was a lot less subtle. He's wearing an orange jumpsuit, he's still got the streak of gray dyed into his shaggy brown hair, and he still reminds me of a young Harrison Ford.
"Hey, Jace," he says affably. "Good to see you. You bring me a cell-warming present?"
There's a table in the middle of the room, with two chairs behind it. Charlie and I sit. "Maybe I have, Tair. Maybe I'm here to tell you that all your troubles are over, all is forgiven, and there's a big pile of cash just outside the wall that'll cushion your fall when you polevault over it to freedom."
His smile gets wider. "I missed you, too. You looking after her, Charlie?"
Charlie's stare is as flat as a snake on the interstate. "Always."
"Good. I know Special Agent Valchek has a tendency to get herself into situations she can't get herself out of."
"Unlike you," says Charlie.
"Ha!" Tair barks. "Well, you got me there, pal. Or should I say, you got me here."
"That could change," I say. I keep my voice as neutral as possible.
"Oh, I doubt that." Tair sounds more amused than fatalistic. "I'm not going to testify against my former employer, Jace."
"Even though he's dead?" Tair used to work for an international arms merchant named Silver Blueuntil Charlie decapitated him.
"His organization is still up and running. In fact, they've already made at least two attempts on my life since I got here." If this bothers him at all, it doesn't show.
"I haven't heard anything about that."
He shrugs, the chains giving a metallic tinkle with the movement. "Took care of it myself. Didn't want you to worry."
Maybe it's the mood I'm in, maybe it's Tair playing mebut just for a second he sounds exactly like Dr. Pete. It's the kind of thing he'd say.
"I'm not here to get you to testify, Tair. I'm here with a different kind of offer."
The sly look this produces on his face is a lot more like the Tair I know. Dr. Pete and I went on exactly one date, and nothing much happenedbut going out with Tair would have been very, very different. Not that I would have let him get far, but ...
Damn it. Did I mention he looks like a young Harrison Ford?
"If you're thinking about conjugal visits, we'll have to get married first," he says. "If, that is, I say yes. I mean, this is awfully sudden"
"How'd you like to have your sentence reduced?"
He pauses, studies me. Sees that I'm serious. "What did you have in mind?"
"Sorcery. There's a Shinto priest who says he can reverse what the Midnight Sword did to you. Return your original persona."
He looks at me blankly for a second, not giving anything away. "Bringing back your beloved Dr. Pete. And I would do this because?"
"It would greatly reduce your sentence. Enough that even early parole would be possible."
"Ah." He thinks about it for a second, staring at a space just above my head. "You can't do this unless I give you my permission, or we wouldn't be having this conversation."
"Yes," I admit.
"Uh-huh. So this isn't about what you can get from meit's about what you're willing to give me."
Charlie stands up. "C'mon, Jace. Let's go. This mook doesn't know a good deal when he hears one."
"Tell your pet sandbag to sit," Tair says. "Let's discuss this."
I nod at Charlie, and he sits back down.
"You're asking me in essence to commit suicide. Why should I?"
"It's not suicide. You'll still be aliveyou'll even retain some memories of your time as Tair. Mostly, that'll seem like a dreambut the priest assures me that at your core, you'll still be the same person. You'll have the same soul."
"Interesting metaphysical dilemma. A psychic lobotomy in return for a get-out-of-jail-free card."
"It's better than spending the rest of your existence in prison. What's a thrope life expectancy these daysthree hundred years?"
"Depends on the bloodline. Plus your diet, getting regular exercise ... oh, and not getting shanked for your pudding. But let's say I'm provisionally interested."
"The procedure would be performed at a Shinto shrine"
"Hold on. You haven't heard my provisions yet."
I raise an eyebrow. "You think you're in a position to bargain? I'm giving you an opportunity here."
He shakes his head, still smiling. "No, you're not. You're giving yourself a chance to get a friend backgood old safe, boring Dr. Adams. I'm not getting a damn thing; he is."
"Then why ask for anything? You're not going to benefit anyway."
His smile fades. "Because there's more to me than just self-interest. The doc and I had the same parents, the same friends, the same childhood. Hell, I still have the same genes. You really think I'm not capable of caring about anybody but myself?"
That stops me. Tair may be arrogant, he may be ruthless, but everything he said is still true. He and Dr. Pete used to be the same personit's the reason I cut Tair more slack than maybe I should.
"Before I tell you what I want," he says, "I need you to understand a few things. About me and my history."
"Which one?" Charlie growls.
"Let's start with what you recall about good ol' Dr. Pete. About what happened to him and how he became the person you knowsorry, knewand loved."
I ignore the last two words of that statementTair is convinced Dr. Pete and I had a thing, mostly based on his own inflated ego. He's wrong. Mostly. "I know he was studying human medicine. He did some moonlighting as a biothaumaturge to help pay for his educationactivating illegal golems for the Gray Market."
"Golems that were used, essentially, as disposable slaves." Tair glances at Charlie. "How's that sit with you, Charlie? Whipping up members of your race for a little hard labor, then turning them into cement mix when they're worn out?"
Charlie doesn't rise to the bait. He just stares back, unblinking, about as readable as a block of granite.
Tair shrugs. "Better than no life at all, I guess. If you can call what you do livingno sex, no food, no chemical recreation. Hey, I heard a great lem joke the other daywhat do you call a golem with no eyes and no ears? A levee."
Charlie smiles. It's not a friendly gesture.
"Enough," I say. "I know Dr. Pete was approached by the Gray Wolves, this world's Mafia. They wanted him to work for them full-time. He turned them downand they slaughtered his entire pack."
Tair says nothing for a long moment. His face is carefully, completely composed, and when he finally does respond, his tone is casual.
"Yeah. That's what happened, all right. And that's where the good doctor and I parted company."
The Dr. Pete I knew had gone to the authorities. They had introduced him to the Adams pack, a group composed of orphans and outcasts with no place else to go.I'd met themthey were a large, boisterous clan, closely knit and fiercely loyal. They'd given Dr. Pete the strength to pull himself together, to keep going and become the healer he'd always wanted to be, while their affiliation with the NSA had protected him from reprisals.
But that was before an insane shaman had plunged a powerful artifact called the Midnight Sword into Dr. Pete's chest. The Sword had altered key points in Dr. Pete's personal history, changing good decisions in his past into bad ones and physically kicking him back a week or so in time. He'd woken up with a head full of memories that had never happened and a name he'd chosen for himself years ago: Tair.
He tries to keep his tone light, but I can hear the emotion he's trying to hide. "See, I didn't run to the cops. I just ran. The killers tried to make it look like a robbery gone wrong, but I wasn't fooled. Didn't add up, didn't make sense, not any of it, not at first. Know what my reaction was, when I finally got it? When I finally figured out that this was meant to recruit me? I was insulted ."
I don't say a word. Neither does Charlie.
"I mean, they thought I was so insecure, so gullible, that I would just blindly accept the murder of my entire pack as some sort of horrible act of random violence. That I would welcome their invitation to join them without even thinking about it."
The stress in his voice is trying to break out, hitting certain words harder than others. He doesn't let it.
"When I realized I wasn't in any danger, I surfaced. Let them contact me. Let them ... comfort me." He almost spits the two syllables out. "Got inside their defenses, got them to trust me. It was a game I playedhow good could I become at fooling them? How far could I go to prove I was worth trusting?"
His gaze has lowered to the floor while he's been talking, but now he raises his eyes to meet mine. They're very, very cold. "Turns out I was willing to go pretty far. And when I was well and truly in their inner circle, I sold them out to a rival family. And helped kill every single one."
I study the challenge in his eyes. He's just admitted multiple murders to a federal agent, while in custody. No details, but enough to get him into several lifetimes' worth of trouble.
If any of it had actually occurred.
But, of course, it hadn't. His revenge was part of a past that didn't exist except in his mind. And he knew it.
"That ship has sailed," I say. "A long time ago. Dr. Pete dealt with itthe right way. An investigation was opened, arrests were made. The people responsible for your pack's murder have paid for their crimes."
"Oh, I know. Once I'd adjusted to my rebirth, I looked into it. I had two very powerful mystic items in my possession for a while, and then I went to work for an international arms dealer. Believe me, before Charlie here separated Silver Blue's head from his shoulders, the man had every criminal organization in the world on speed dial. Using his contacts to find out what the Carcione family was up to these days wasn't hard."
He stops and waits for me to process that.
I nod. "I'm guessing the Carcione family isn't around anymore."
"I wouldn't know. But I also wouldn't be surprised if some of them ran into a little bad luck." He pauses, then lets the steel show in his voice. "In fact, I'd guess that bad luck affected everysingleone of them."
I frown. I thought he was building up to some kind of pitch for revengebut it sounds like he's already taken care of that. "Tair, what do you want?"
"Back in the daythe nonexistent day, you understandthe Carciones' biggest rivals were the Falzo family. They were the ones I betrayed the Carciones to, the ones who wiped them out. I didn't do it on a whim; I was very, very careful. Revenge has to be meticulous to be successfulotherwise it'll blow up in your face. I did a lot of research on the Falzos, studied them, got to know who they were and what they were about. A good assassin has to know his weapon, and the Falzos were going to be mine. I did this at the same time I was trying to convince the Carciones that I was a loyal and faithful employee, turning out illegal lems in an underground factory. It wasn't enough to just be convincingI had to be perfect. I immersed myself in their world, became what they wanted me to be. Holding just enough of myself back to remember why I was there in the first place."
He falls silent, gathering his thoughts. I have no idea where he's going with this.
"It changed me," he says at last. "Made me who I am today. But it wasn't all bad."
"Yeah," says Charlie. "Look where you are now."
Tair ignores him. "See, it's never as simple as who's good and who's not. People are complex. Some of the people in the Falzo family turned out to be honorable, if not law-abiding. I made more than just alliances, I made friends. After the Carciones were wiped out, the Falzos offered to take me in. I accepted."
"No, you didn't," I say. "None of that actually happened, remember?"
"As far as I'm concerned it did. I know them, even if they don't know me. Which is why I approached them after I'd dealt with my ... unfinished business."
After you'd executed your pack's killers, you mean. "And they were receptive?"
"Considering recent events I'd had a hand inevents that proved quite favorable to themyes. The Don, in particular, was intrigued to hear about my situation. He was skeptical at first, but I knew things he would only have revealed to a close friend. Examinations by his own shamans verified my condition."
"So you and Don Falzo rekindled a relationship he didn't know existed. So what?"
"So that's what I want in return for my cooperation. I want you to do a favor for Don Arturo Falzo."
Copyright © 2011 by DD Barant.