Black Lightby Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan, Stephen Romano
If you have a supernatural problem that won't go away, you need Buck Carlsbad: private eye, exorcist, and last resort.
Buck's got a way with spirits that no one else can match. He was normal, once. Until Something Horrible killed his parents and left him for dead.
Buck has spent years using his gift to trace his family. It's his only hope of/b>/b>… See more details below
If you have a supernatural problem that won't go away, you need Buck Carlsbad: private eye, exorcist, and last resort.
Buck's got a way with spirits that no one else can match. He was normal, once. Until Something Horrible killed his parents and left him for dead.
Buck has spent years using his gift to trace his family. It's his only hope of finding out what happened to them-and what made him the way he is.
Now the voices say that something big is coming. Buck already knows what it is-a super high-tech bullet train running express across a stretch of unforgiving desert known for the most deadly paranormal events in history. A place where Buck almost died a few years ago, and where he swore he would never return.
But as the train prepares to rumble down the tracks, Buck knows it can only be the inevitable hand of fate pulling him back to the most harrowing unfinished case of his career at four hundred miles per hour.
Ghostbusters with bloody mayhem on steroids." Kirkus Reviews"
Fun and exciting. A definite winner."Booklist"
I found myself riveted to the page, and about to go for the ride of my life...The style here is phenomenal, all at once calling upon noir, action, and straight-up, hard-core horror, and throwing it at the reader in a well blended mix...A brilliant play on the whole medium/ghost hunter thing, and a concrete way to make all fans of horror happy in one way or another."www.DreadulTales.com"
Black Light is immensely entertaining, fueled by breakneck pacing and an action-packed story...A thrilling reading experience. In the end, Black Light entertained the hell out of me and I sincerely hope Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan & Stephen Romano offer up another serving of Buck Carlsbad in the very near future..."www.FantasyBookCritic.com"
Wry, complex and suspenseful, Black Light will keep spines tingling from the first ghoulish encounter to the final exorcism. Readers will have a ghastly good time tagging along on an exorcist's bullet-train journey through the nexus of evil."Jaclyn Fulwood, Shelf Awareness
Romano joins Melton and Dunstan, creators of theSawfilm franchise, to pen a fantasy crime, or crime as fantasy, novel.The book opens with Buck exorcising the ghost of a child murderer haunting the New Orleans residence of his widow. The authors offer bits of Buck's back story as he cruises home to Texas. As a child, Buck was abandoned in Carlsbad, N.M., and sent to an orphanage. As a teen, his gift becomes evident when he sees a ghost plaguing an attendant. The Pull draws that evil woman into Buck, and he experiences the Black Light—"the vision of the dead"—before ridding himself of the tortured soul by vomiting her evil plasma onto her gravesite. Home from his New Orleans Pull,Buck is enlisted by industrialist Sidney Jaeger. The billionaire has built a high-speed bullet train to run from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. It will travel at 400-mph-plus across the California desert through an area triangulated by former sites of three maximum-security prisons, grounds where uncounted evil ghosts lurk. Carrying a crowd of celebrities and one very important politician, the super train breaks records rocketing from L.A. to Vegas while Buck rides along battling rogue government agents, backstabbing friends and the evil shades of "Blackjack Nine," whose leader killed Buck's parents. The authors are fond of overwrought descriptive language—"bringing the spirit in with a gutterspewing thunder that feels like a toilet flush tremor bolting to the core of the Earth"—random clichés and capital-letter bold statements as they unpack the action and dish out eye-gouging marital-arts battles, dislocated pinkies, shootouts and gut-retching exorcisms. Buck on the screen will require major CGI skills.
Not forPotterorTwilightfans. It'sGhostbusterswith bloody mayhem on steroids, few laughs and a dash of Bruce Lee theatrics.
- Little, Brown and Company
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- 5.90(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)
Read an Excerpt
By Melton, Patrick
Mulholland BooksCopyright © 2011 Melton, Patrick
All right reserved.
A coil of steel more than two city blocks long, moving faster than anything else on earth.
Even ghosts are afraid of it.
But you probably don’t know what that means.
You have no idea that this roiling column of metal could rip you apart, soul and all—and that you might never come back. At least not as skin and bones. You don’t know because most people don’t believe in ghosts. They think this kind of stuff is just make-believe. Stories you tell kids around a campfire.
I guess I don’t have to tell you, they’re wrong.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s talk about me first…
the mark inside
It always goes down hard when a dead guy takes his first swing at me. Like an invisible club coming out of the dark behind my eyes, landing in a million different places—places of the mind, places of the soul. I’ve been told I have a pretty mean soul, but I always flinch a little. You’d think I’d be used to it by now.
He’s tough, this son of a bitch.
He was a child killer when he was still alive. I can tell that right off. It’s the Terrible Thing that fuels his madness, makes him strong. It comes at me like a ripe smell of sulfur and smoldering ash, his last moments flashing in the thundering sonic boom of a bad heartbeat—and then I see his whole life, man. I take it on fast-forward, a quicktime superhighway of images, scenes, tiny little details flashing across the electrified chambers of my mind. I get it in just two seconds. It’s a lot to swallow. The moment is always terrifying.
Freefloaters, they’re always damn hard to pull.
You never know how tough they are until they’re right on top of you.
Usually, you have to go looking for them in places like this. These old Victorian houses are death traps. The nasty ones get in deep in all the nooks and crannies—there’s a million places to hide. But sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes they’re just cruising for a straight fight. Didn’t even need to call this one out, he’s just that crazy. Jumped me right in the middle of the room, saw me coming a mile away. Thinks he’s a real Billy Badass. Tough shit, Billy—I saw you coming too.
He was an altar boy in school, a four-letter football athlete in college. He could have gone pro but he became a cop instead. All the while living with his dark secret: the desire to smash something smaller than himself. So many years of madness and self-punishment and playing chess with his best friends and his family, who never knew the monster he really was. His final mistake. His own little boy. Psycho killers with families always screw up like that in the end. They get convinced they can be normal on the surface, but remain tortured by their desires until they finally give in, and it’s never pretty. I’ve seen the writhing lifescapes of at least a dozen like him. The trick is not to go too far when you pull a mark in. The trick is to use their own insanity against them.
See, it’s the crime, their most agonized moment—that’s what always brings these guys down. The moment when they finally fell, the moment when they lost everything, screaming that it just wasn’t fair, every regret and every lie and every damn one of those tormented secrets rising to the surface like sewage, hitting hard and blasting them off the earth—but not into death, not all the way. Every bad mark holds that Terrible Thing right out in front of them. If you’re like me, you see it superimposed on the world like a shimmering red serpentine coil, oozing and twisting and sluicing across everything else they possess, like a cancer. If you’re like me, you can reach out and grab it.
And if you’re like me…it burns.
Burns so deep you feel your whole body swell at the seams and threaten to blow right there.
But I hold him.
What’s inside me holds him.
I keep my feet planted on the floor now, allowing the energy of his own attack to ground me there. It’s an old-school martial arts technique—but it works, even when you’re fighting something that isn’t alive. I concentrate on the hard surfaces and familiar smells around my body, using them as an anchor to the world. The dusty living room, the antique furniture and ornate French doors. The sharp scent of old souls trapped in the carpet and the peeling wallpaper. The candles filling the air with ordinary magic—the false magic of men and faith, not ghosts and whispers. It armors me. Allows me to turn his own attack against him. Works every time.
I hear the desperate screech of his fractured mind do a midair whipcrack in the opposite direction, trying to resist the Pull.
But none of them can resist it.
I am a black hole and he is the light that cannot escape it.
I turn it on harder, feeling the burn as I get a grip on the twisting red ooze that flows through him. This always hurts the mark worse than it hurts me, even though it hurts me a whole goddamn lot, like ice daggers spiked with fire jamming into my eyes and my heart. The mark spits at me and curses, fighting dirty, kicking up a shockwave that shatters all the glass in the room, but I have him now, and he’s coming in hard, the way most spirits do when they try to possess you, connecting to your nervous system, taking control of your bones and mind, like a spider spinning up a fly.
But my Gift is to withstand that, to brush it aside.
Drink them down.
Kick their asses.
He screams all the way, the formless mist of madness and unsettled rage blasting apart and sleeting through the surface of my skin. In this one kinetic flashburn moment, everything he ever was—his life, his memories, his death in madness—it all goes into me.
My body shakes and rumbles as the mark plunges down deep.
My whole body lights up from the lowest depth, coils of living energy dragracing my bloodstream. His rage scorches my mind, the desperate whine of a dying animal run through a feedback loop. I get it under control, bearing down hard, my teeth clenching.
He’s in my house now.
The scream fades to a rumble, then a low simmer, as the substance of his insanity fizzes and dissipates like acid seltzer. I feel it burst and become sour muck, oozing along the walls of my stomach and lungs, a living disease given terrible formless autonomy, still trying to scream its way out. It’s ingested now. Way down inside me.
This part is bad.
It’s the worst part of the job.
Then again, who said life—or death—was fair.
I glance at my watch and notice that I walked in here exactly three minutes ago. Just in time to crash the party. The woman is cringing in a far corner, near the fireplace, crying as she watches my body quake and rumble, my eyes jacked open, infused with the dull red glow of a madman’s cancer. All his hatred of her and his secrets and his terrible acts of violence—the things he did right here in this room and out there in the city, for years and years, and she never knew—it’s bouncing around in my guts like a pinball on fire, tearing me to pieces. It rips a month from my life in three seconds. Then another month. Then a year. Always a lot of damage when they’re so far down in the sickness.
But I still hold him.
He still oozes inside me.
I take a few deep breaths.
You’d think I’d be used to it by now.
The woman is still crying in the corner, but her eyes are full like saucers, the startled whites beaming at me, even through the flickering half-darkness. I see her face shimmer in the light from the candles, and she lets out a long sigh.
And that’s when the mark hits me again.
A sucker punch, right out of nowhere, deep in my guts.
I lose control for just a split second as the awful oozing cancer gets a grip on my mind. The world fritzes out…
It spirals across my vision like an X-ray bathing the room in neon darkness. A dark so bright it blinds you. A glowing blade of white-hot laser light, peeling back the skin of reality to expose new layers. My scleral contact lenses keep the sudden shock from scorching me sightless, but the water in my eyes sizzles away fast. Didn’t see this coming. Have to pull back. Have to get him under control. Have to do it now…have to…
I see everything.
Everything the dead people see.
This is where they live.
It’s beautiful and terrifying, and all the answers I ever looked for are hovering right here in front of me in a sea of shadows.
It feels good.
It’s been so long.
It knew I would come back.
I smile in the Blacklight, feeling it rush into me.
I’m standing right where I was, in the same room, but the room is now revealed for what it really is. A flashing flipbook of half-images, all rushing in at once in a machinegun stutter. A million shapes swimming in translucent curtains, shadows of old lives, echoes of lost love and bad family business played out long ago. I see every story this old house ever witnessed. I see children giggling on the carpet in front of me. Toys spread out on the floor, which then turn into vases of flowers, and then I see the house built in reverse, the farmland it once stood on, and the years before that, all bathed in bright polarized shadows as the Blacklight shifts and pulses, taking me back in time, then forward again, ricocheting all over history, flickering images like changing channels on an old black-and-white television set. I stand here in this spot and see it all go down, and I can tell that it’s the mark’s madness forcing me to look at this—because he wants out. This is what dead people see on their side of the world, and he wants me to see it so I lose control of him.
But I’ve played this game before.
I know how to win it.
I ground myself again and bring myself back to the moment set before me. I concentrate on the room and it solidifies in ice-black glimmers, coming into sharp focus, so bright and so hot. I see the mark’s terrible crimes in the room. I see the candles transform into the knives he used to slit his own son’s throat. I see the razor wire and the rubber gloves and the bottles of ammonia appear on the coffee table, where he prepared his tools in the terrible hours before his final crime. I could reach out and bring that razor wire back with me if I wanted to, the same way I can pull marks. I’ve done it before. No one has ever been able to tell me why I can do it.
I even see the faint trace of the mark’s madness, floating in the air where it was just before I grabbed him, still hanging there, like the slime trail of a phantom slug.
The slime trail that allowed me to grab him in the first place.
I see it all.
It feels good.
Feels like I belong here.
It’s amazing and overwhelming and brighter than a million suns, hitting me hard…and I know I can use this…it will lead me to the truth…I want to stay here…it’s where I belong…it’s so beautiful…
Get down, you bastard.
I will not have this fucking shit from you.
I go for the tiny pocketknife in my satchel, snick it open, and slide the sharp end along my little finger—just a tiny scrape. Enough to ping my system, to remind myself that I’m still human in this strange twilight of dead things. The pain shocks up my arm, overriding everything. The mark thrashes and screams and kicks me, but I have him cold now, and he has no choice but to retreat. And as be backs off…
The vision recedes and fades away.
The room is normal again.
My eyes still burn.
I reach up fast, and pull the lenses, toss them on the floor, where they melt like translucent slag. Damn. Those things are expensive.
That’ll teach me to forget my goggles.
I calm myself, measuring reality by the beating of my heart, making sure I’m still all here. Yeah. I’m still here.
And I win, you son of a bitch.
“Ma’am, your husband is gone. He won’t be giving you any more trouble.”
The woman shivers, and I think she says thank you, but it’s hard to tell. She didn’t see what I just saw. Nobody ever sees it but me. It’s enough to make a man feel really damn alone in a mighty cruel world.
She rises to her feet, throws herself into my arms, crying. I never have any idea what to do at times like this. Pulling marks ain’t easy, but it’s easier than a woman’s tears. So I tell her it’s okay, tell her she’s safe now. She smells like sweet things. I’m reminded of a hundred others like her. I’m reminded of things I can never have. I tell her it’s okay now. That’s all I can do.
The big man next to me puts his hand on my shoulder.
“Come on, Buck,” he says. “Why don’t you step outside? I’ll take it from here.”
change of plans
That damn commercial plays again.
I try to ignore it again.
The urn sits on the bar in front of Tom, and I can almost see my face reflected in the silver surface. Almost, but not quite. Some kind of poetry in that, I guess.
The place is dank and greasy, the smell of stale beer and cigarettes wafting around like a roomful of drunk ghosts. Sometimes I can pick up on stuff that happened in rooms like this. Sometimes there’s marks here, just visiting. They never stay long in grungy nightspots. Bigger fish to fry in a town like New Orleans.
Tom pulls a sweaty envelope from his jacket pocket. Hands it to me and slides over the silver. “Here’s your cut. She was generous. Twelve large, plus the urn. Did you see her eyes back there? You prolly could’ve gotten lucky with that broad.”
“I don’t get lucky with clients.”
“She was a looker. I woulda done it.”
“You would have done a lot of things.”
“Yeah, I’m no Boy Scout. Not like you.” He rolls a grin at me when he says it, as if he’s telling me something I don’t already know. Loves to bust my balls when it comes to women, like I give a shit. His weird Italian voice sounds high and hardened, like Joe Pesci or some other tough guy in a gangster flick.
“Yeah, but you’re still one of the good guys,” I tell him, careful not to imitate his sleazy drawl. I do that sometimes, I think a lot of people do. You get around strange customers and you pick up on their inflections. Whenever I go out of town on jobs like this, people are amazed I don’t sound like some grim midnight cowboy from a trashy Western. That’s because I mostly do business out of Texas.
“I try not to think about good guys and bad guys,” he says, sipping his whiskey, watching me pocket the cash. “And you should count that, Buck.”
“I trust you.”
“You shouldn’t trust anyone, even your best friend.”
“I don’t have any friends.”
“Ain’t that sad? Years I’ve known you, Buck, and you don’t think I’m your friend?”
“You never call on my birthday.”
“I never call on anyone’s birthday.”
“Neither do I.”
“Then I guess we’re both scumbags after all.”
He finishes off his drink, orders another. Jim Beam Black on ice. Doesn’t ask if I want anything. He knows I don’t drink, and if you order club soda in a place like this, they look at you funny. The bartender goes through the motions, a silent black sentinel without pity in a houseful of dirty jazz.
I inspect the urn. Solid silver, not plated. Expensive. Haven’t seen one of these in a while. It reminds me of crazier times. I shut off the memories fast, looking at myself in the mirror across the bar.
A man turning old in a big hurry stares back at me.
My hair was black before I got in this business. Jet-black, the color of being young and reckless. It’s half-white now, in weird little streaks across the sides of my head. I noticed it the first time I ever got rid of a mark. One hair, shocked straight to hell by what I do. Gray is the color of something old and worn—not really alive, not quite dead enough. White is something else.
I figure one day soon, when I’ve asked all the questions I can ask, when I’ve looked through the Blacklight enough times, when I’ve found my mother and father and figured out why I can do this thing I do…well, maybe I’ll look like Edgar Winter or Andy Warhol or someone like that. It won’t matter. I’ll be in my grave by then.
Tom sees me staring at myself in the mirror, and he laughs. “Don’t kid yourself, kid. You look great.”
“I look like somebody dying.”
“You are somebody dying. But you still look good. Not a wrinkle on your face. Not an ugly old fuck like me.”
“You’re not ugly.”
“Says you.” He cracks a smile, makes a quick circle with his drink, searching for something. “You look like that guy…you know, that guy who played the cop in that fuckin’ movie. The one about the dirty Feds and the counterfeiters.”
“To Live and Die in LA?”
“Yeah, yeah that’s the one.”
“William Peterson. He was a good looking guy when he was young.”
“What’s he look like now?”
“Kind of like I feel.”
He shrugs, then belts the drink and stirs ice with his finger. “Well, you look like the young version, kid, even if you feel like shit. All cagy eyes and square jaw—and no wrinkles. I don’t get that. Guys in our line of work are supposed to get old and craggy fast. I’da thought you’d be thirty-eight going on sixty-nine by now.”
“Looks ain’t everything.”
“Must’ve made a deal with the devil, huh?”
“I don’t believe in the devil.”
“Maybe you should start.”
He smiles, then almost laughs. Gives me a serious nod. “It’s all worth it, Buck. You did a good thing back there. That little lady, she went through hell this past year. Her man had some screws loose, but she never figured his goddamn ghost was gonna be around later to make it worse.”
“Nobody ever does.” I close my eyes and listen for the voice of the child killer—it’s still keeping its distance inside me, softer now since I kicked his ass.
He sighs, long and hard. “Man, I was on that case for three months, Buck. Tried everything to flush the bastard out. I was down to bone throwing—fucking bayou magic, man. It’s all for shit when you’re dealing with a real hard one. They live in the walls like cockroaches and laugh while you bust the place apart. There was a time I could’ve brought him down myself.”
That surprises me some.
Tom Romilda is still a respected name. Fifteen years on the streets of the Big Easy. He knows the lingo and all the parlor tricks, which is usually enough. He doesn’t have the Gift the way guys like me do, though. Tom’s good with the research end, computers and cop records and stuff like that—he’s a licensed private investigator with all the heat—but you have to bring in the heavy guns sometimes. The local dicks who work the Blacklight beat here are mostly crooks who talk a lot of voodoo bullshit. Tom ain’t like that. He makes sure the client is always happy, even if he has to lie about how he gets there. That’s why he used to be so successful. Knows it’s all about referrals in this business. He’s older now, but still respected. Probably just getting lazy.
“You really saved my ass this time,” he says, turning to me with one elbow on the bar. “Let me return the favor. Got something serious to talk about.”
I see where this is going already, and I don’t like it.
“Can’t pull two in a row, Tom. I’m out of practice.”
“So give it a rest. There’s no rush. You can crash at our place. Victoria would love to spoil you.”
Victoria’s his fifth wife. He goes through them like bad romance novels. The last one was an ex–Suicide Girl, arms covered in tattoos, heart made of stone. The one living in his house now is a twenty-seven-year-old Betty Homemaker with a nasty streak—she broke a lamp over his head last week while he was sleeping, then made him pancakes in the morning.
“Tom, I can’t.”
“C’mon, man, I know I threw you in blind this time but—”
“It’s not that. It’s not you. It’s this place.”
“At least hear me out.”
I pull away from the mirror, settle back on the barstool, feeling the sticky fingers of the French Quarter pulling at my mind. This town has a vibe unlike anyplace else. I’ve been a lot of places, too. It tastes like swamplands and weird mojo tickling you somewhere deep and private, the gypsy scent of strange perfumes and incense teasing with the wistful afterburn of secrets you’d really rather not know about. And the food. That’s the thing about the Quarter anyone can pick up on, not just guys like me. The smell of backwoods banquets wafting through the street, hickory smoked and Cajun fried. It’s almost enough to distract you from the limitless evil that lives here.
I run my finger along the silver surface of the urn. It has holy crosses carved into the side, etchings of Jesus and Mary. A joke, really.
The remains of the child killer grumble in my stomach.
“I just wanna get back to my hotel room, Tom. Get this Billy Badass out of my guts. One goddamn problem at a time, man.”
“You should make it easier on yourself. Sit here and get drunk like the rest of us. You’ll be yodeling down the big porcelain megaphone in no time.”
“If I got sauced every time I needed to get rid of a mark, I would have gone belly-up a long time ago.”
“Fine, have it your way. But you really oughta listen to an old man when he’s handing out free advice—even if he is an ugly drunk.”
“I handle my own problems my own way.”
Above the mirror, the battered flat-screen plays that same damn commercial that’s run four times since I stepped into this place.
And I can’t look away from it, just like before.
“Welcome to the future,” says the TV, showing off a world of dreamlight. The spot is state-of-the-art filmmaking and digital-video trickery, and the voice is excited and young, announcing the opening of a new multimillion-dollar playground in Vegas. Everyone knows about it. Been on every channel for the last six weeks.
I’ve known about it for a lot longer than that.
“The Dreamworld Casino and Theme Park! A whole new planet of entertainment and adventure! A galaxy of wonderment in the center of the universe!”
If you’ve ever been to places like Universal City or even Disney World, you sort of start to get the idea—shopping malls mated with movie theaters dotted among terrifying mile-in-the-sky amusement rides, all rushing to be consumed by causeway levels, all brimming with studded marquees and twists of sculpted light more dazzling than the gilded gates of Neverland.
But it’s always the second part of this commercial that gets me.
Like the sharp stab of a dull memory in the pit of your stomach, reminding you to turn away, but you can’t.
“And there’s just one way to reach the center of the universe! On the Laser!”
A series of fast cuts and super-hip screen-wipe effects show me the bullet: a sleek steel serpent slashing through the desert. The fastest high-speed luxury rail train ever built.
I want to forget that it exists.
“From downtown Los Angeles to the heart of Las Vegas, with speed and style to spare! The ultimate VIP travel-entertainment experience! The Jaeger Laser! Punch it into hyperspace for the thrill ride of a lifetime—all the way to the Dreamworld!”
I look away from the television, as the hard-sell powers down and it goes back to some sit-com. The bartender reaches up with the remote, thumbing the canned laughter into oblivion, replacing it with a news channel.
“The Jaeger Laser,” I say to no one in particular. “Fucking ridiculous name.”
The big man next to me lets out a sharp huff, his eyes still on the screen above us. “I guess it’s true what they say—the past always bites you in the ass just when you think you’re done with it.”
He should know better, tossing it in my face like that.
I shake my head. “I am done with it.”
“Bullshit. You’ve had your eyes glued to that TV since we came in here.”
“Ain’t got nothing to do with me anymore.”
“I know you don’t really believe that, Buck. You’ve got serious history with that train.”
He’s going somewhere with this too.
And I still don’t like it.
“Tom…whatever you have in mind, just forget it. The last time I went out there, I got somebody killed. Somebody innocent.”
“I know all about shit like that. Before you were even born, I was knee-deep in a place where killing children was government sponsored.”
“I’m not like you, Tom. I don’t kill people. I don’t kill kids. I don’t care who’s sponsoring me.”
His jagged smile splits his face like a jack-o’-lantern with a dirty secret. “What if I told you I could get you sponsored by the guys who are running that train? Right now. Tonight.”
Something turns cold in the air, and I smell the hard grime of dead things in my past, the Walkers in the slipstream whispering something just on the edge of hearing. They just did a little dance on my grave.
I look at him hard. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about the big one, Buck.”
He points at the TV screen, as the commercial starts up again.
The fastest train in the world, running to the center of the universe.
Running straight through my past.
“They’re looking for you,” he says. “There’s something going on and they want you on the team.”
“Believe it, kid. They called me. I got you up here so we could have a man-to-man about it.”
“I only came here because I needed the money.”
“Don’t kid yourself, kid. You came because you’re still hungry to look across. You’re still looking for your folks. This deal I’m handing you now could put you right at ground zero. It’s just like you always said: there are no coincidences.”
His words sting me.
It always stings when it’s true.
I shake my head on auto-pilot, starting to feel the seriousness of his words sink in, the dull panic of everything that made me desperate so long ago washing up in bitter waves. “I don’t want it anymore. I can’t go back there.”
“You could at least hear what they have to say.”
“I said no, Tom. It’s over for me. They can ride their fancy rail line straight to hell for all I care. Whatever happens, it ain’t gonna have anything to do with me. And I’ve got things to do.”
I grab the silver urn and get up from the bar stool.
He puts up his hand, palm out. “Okay, okay, I’m sorry. We’re still cool, right? I mean, the money’s fine and everything?”
I roll my eyes. “Money’s great. Go fuck yourself.”
He laughs. “Look, do yourself a favor, man. Just think about this one.” He slides a small slab of embossed-foil paper across the bar to me with one finger. A business card. “Think about it real hard, Buck.”
The card reads in big letters:
And there’s a phone number.
I take the card and pocket it, give him a shrug. He knows I’ll be back. Even says so, with that big filthy grin of his.
You’ll be back, Buck.
Story of my life.
Loose ends and bad ghosts, all hanging at the edge of oblivion.
All waiting for me.
I shake his hand and he leans in and grabs my shoulder. He squeezes tight, winks at me through a leathery road map of wrinkles and says I just need a good woman, like that’s his solution for everything. Like it ever really works for him.
They say women are life’s great mystery, but I know better.
There’s lots of other mysteries out there.
Like the one that’s hovered over me in dark neon riddles since the day I found out what I am. The one that’s coming back on me now, while the mark sizzles and burns from the inside, boiling against my organs and blood and who knows what else.
I stuff the urn in my satchel and leave the bar, drifting out into the steaming summer night, the cobblestones of ancient French streets under my feet like grave markers, vibrating with the frequencies of the dead.
I walk right past my cheap room on Royal Street.
Head straight for my truck.
Change of plans.
I have to get home, and I have to keep Billy Badass inside me while I do it. Have to drive all night with the remains of a child killer cursing me, just like in the old days. All the way back to Austin from the worst city on earth.
I have to.
Tom was right—I came here to help because I wanted to look across again. But I didn’t know what I was really looking for until just now.
What he told me back there changes the game.
And there’s only one place on earth I can go to know for sure.
And one place beyond earth.
Have to get back there, fast.
The mark rumbles, sensing my panic, wanting out. The buzz always turns into sickness when you keep it in too long. I force it down with sheer will, taking an anxious shortcut through a back alley.
They followed me three blocks before they made their move.
I was hoping they’d see my truck and give up—it’s ten years old and beat to shit, makes me look like poor white trash. But no such luck. The smaller one steps forward with his arms crossed and his chest puffed out like some skinny lizard. The fat one points at the big leather satchel strapped across my chest and lays down the law:
“We’ll take your bag, man.”
The child killer senses the threat and smells their blood, its wordless voice rumbling like sour backwash up into my throat. I tell it to stay down.
They’re a couple of dim ratfaces in greasy wifebeaters and shredded cargo pants, half defined in streetlamp shadows, like ghosts wearing flesh. But they aren’t ghosts—they’re not even armed, not with anything but raw knuckles and deep scars across their lips, telling tales of juvenile prison and bad fathers. They’re still in their late teens, probably won’t live to be thirty. Don’t even need to read their minds for any of that.
I don’t have time for this.
The child killer rumbles, bringing the Blacklight closer, just out of sight.
I tell it to stay down.
It doesn’t want to hear that.
It smells blood.
No shadows moving over the ratfaces. No traces in the dark. I would see traces if there was something inside them. The smaller one takes another step forward, pinning me with yellow eyes:
“You deaf, man? My partner told ya to hand over yer bag, man.”
Their voices are dumb and street southern—when this one tacks the word “man” at the end of every sentence, it sounds like main. I start smiling, then I laugh. Backwater stereotypes. Gotta love ’em.
The Blacklight screams for me. If this turns bad, it could be a problem. I should hand over the cash. I should play this safe. But I just chuckle at them while the child killer lusts for blood in my throat.
“Whut the fuck you laughin’ at, man?”
He takes one last step forward. He has a tattoo on his exposed right shoulder that says in silly spiked heavy-metal lettering: HI, MY NAME’S MERCILESS CLYDE.
That really makes me laugh.
“Shut the fuck UP, man!”
He shoves me with both hands. I don’t stumble back. I am armored by what rumbles in my body, the stench of blood and the voices of dead things making me clench my teeth, amplifying my senses. The ratty kid smells like whiskey straight from the bottle and sour sweat. I would smell dull steel if he were packing. I smell his soul, tainted and broken. The child killer screams for it. The anger and the lust wash over me again, stronger now, the threat upping my adrenaline, fueling my rage.
I stop smiling and force myself to warn them:
“You kids don’t want any trouble. Go home.”
The fat one sees my expressionless face when I say that, and his eyes get real pissed, like Some jerks just never have any idea when they’re knee-deep, do they?
Like I’m nothing but an inconvenience to these fuckos.
Stupid, ignorant backwoods punks.
I hate them.
Kill them NOW.
The voice cuts through me like a blade, and my hands act all on their own. The one in front of me never sees it coming: an open chop across his windpipe that crushes his Adam’s apple and almost cuts off his air. You don’t need to be showy with guys like this, but I want to hurt them, hurt them bad, teach them a lesson—teach you to fuck with me, you fucking little shit…
He makes a wet sound, those yellow eyes bugging all the way out, and as he reaches up to claw at his neck I grab his little finger and twist it back, a mean shockwave of raw inertia rearranging his entire arm at a crazy angle that drops him to his knees. The threefold multicrack of the bone rips out in a nasty compound fracture through his skin, popping the air like a string of Black Cats. Every punk on earth becomes a little bitch when you show him what the food chain looks like from the bottom. This one screams, of course, but there’s still nothing inside him—I had to be sure. Never take any chances in a city that crawls.
And I want to hurt him.
I want to snuff him out.
You’re going to die, you weak little shit.
I am going to kill you.
My other hand goes around his throat, crushing off the rest of his air. Merciless Clyde is a child again, helpless and crying wordlessly for me to stop, and I want to smother that helpless, crying child—smash him, destroy him.
Because you are smaller than me, and I am stronger than you.
Because I am filled with rage.
My eyes flood with blinding darkness as I squeeze him.
The Blacklight, jumping me without warning again.
Like you ever get a warning in my line of work.
It feels good.
It makes me powerful.
And I see his whole life, this stupid little punk, as he shimmers in layers of phosphorescent fog beneath my iron grip, and I see the secrets of every crime that ever happened on this street corner strobing all around us like blasted bits of nightmares, coming in fast and terrible, all of them rushing through me as the heat of rage and violence burns and boils in my heart, pushing me forward, making me kill this little boy because I am a child killer—
I let go of him, and the blinding blackness goes away in one blink as I force the awful alien madness down, pushing it back into my stomach.
It had me, the fucker.
That hasn’t happened in years.
Merciless Clyde hits the sidewalk, still crying. I stand over him and my hands shake. Almost killed the kid. Damn.
The fat one ain’t so merciless—he loses his balls and breaks for the street.
I knew he would run.
I knew everything about these two guys the first second I saw them.
It’s a problem I have.
“Get a job,” I tell Clyde, who’s still crying on the pavement.
I pull out the sweaty envelope and peel off a couple of twenties. They fall from my hand like dead leaves, drifting past the punk’s face and blowing down the street after his buddy, floating on the sour wind. I pick up the urn, then jump in the truck, toss it on the seat next to me. The keys jingle in my hand and the engine comes to life like a grumpy monster.
As I’m driving away, I see a trace of something—the shadow of a broken-down old man in rags chasing after the money, his fingerless gloves clutching at false prizes, cut loose among all the other bad ghosts in a city without shame. I always see traces brighter just after I come up from the Blacklight, and it always chills my blood. The money drifts away. The false prize. The promise.
The mark grumbles inside me, frustrated and defeated.
It wanted that little bastard bad.
Can’t let it happen again.
I have things to do.
When I was seven years old, my life began.
Everything before that is gone, not even fragments left.
The Blacklight keeps the secret.
It’s a window to where my parents went.
The teachers and administrators at the institution told me I’d been found on a backstreet in New Mexico, in a little postage-stamp town called Carlsbad. Said they’d found me near suffocated in the front cab of a rusty old truck with the windows rolled up, my brain half baked by the sun, breathing my own waste, about to die.
That’s what they told me.
I couldn’t remember any of it, still can’t.
They said it was the heat inside the cab that fried my memory. Said I was lucky they found me when they did. Maybe I was lucky, maybe I wasn’t.
The only thing I could remember was my birthday: November 12, 1973.
They told me latent-detail recall like that wasn’t uncommon among amnesiacs who’ve suffered a major break, but it’s always seemed really strange to me.
The institution was where I spent a lot of my childhood, the part I can remember. A chalky gray building, full of voices. A lot of crying, a lot of screaming. That place taught me to be tough, how to take it on the chin. I started my martial arts training there, under a kid who was ten years older than me, a fifth-degree black belt obsessed with Bruce Lee movies. I always thought those movies were real silly, but Bruce was a scary customer. He could kick everyone’s ass, one ass at a time. I learned how to do that slowly. You learn how to be tough slowly. The scar tissue builds on your mind and body.
They gave me a last name on the inside, but they weren’t all that creative about it. I never asked any questions. I was too young to ask questions. Now, I’m just used to the way things are. I picked my first name on my own. Grabbed it out of thin air when they were doing the paperwork. The social worker smiled across the desk and filled in the blank. Someone asked me once if I was named after one of the kids in the Little Rascals. A guy picked a fight with me a few years ago because he thought my handle was some kind of weird cowboy joke. Most people in Texas don’t like weird cowboy jokes. Welcome to the big, bad confusing world, Mr. Carlsbad. We’ll just call you Buck.
I pulled my first mark at the institution.
In the town I was named after.
I was twelve when it happened.
She was attached to one of the orderlies, a big tough guy named Granger who used to give me a lot of grief. He shook the kids down, even beat up one of them. The ghost of his grandmother tortured him for almost a year before I figured out what it was. Figured out how to deal with it. Mediums usually find their abilities at the peak of their awakenings, during puberty, and I was no exception. A pretty early bloomer, actually. The girls liked me a lot at the institution, and I had just experienced my first real tryst in a broom closet with an overdeveloped redhead who smelled like acne cream and Cheery-Cherry bubble gum—and that was when it happened.
The very same night.
I remember lying there in my bunk, thinking about the tingling in my gut, the new sensations of manhood, the odd afterglow of weird pride, silent guilt, and sadness. I could hear old Granger walking the hall between rooms as he went on bed check, his keys jingling along the corridor like strange sleigh bells, almost there and not quite there at all. I remember the jingling seemed to become a laughter. And then the laughter was a roaring in my head. I stepped into the hallway and saw the old woman hovering over him, plain as day, her crackling aura lit up in the dark, though he couldn’t see her at all. A stinging thunderclap hit me, and I knew I had been given something. The first seven years of my life erased forever and handed back to me as—whatever this was.
I reached out and touched the old woman’s madness.
That final, tortured moment that kept her trapped.
The Terrible Thing, swimming in the air like a red serpentine coil.
And as I touched it, I could feel the power coming awake inside me.
The Pull, summoning her dead spirit deep into me.
And as the old woman’s vaporous remains crashed over me in a wave and seeped through my skin like burning, drowning seawater, everything she’d ever been as a human being moved through every chamber of my mind in one flash…and I knew what she had done to her grandson. The awful things that kept her around.
I swallowed it easy that first time.
She went without a fight.
And then I could see as she saw.
I could see the Blacklight for the first time.
That X-ray vision splitting the world into superheated prisms of burning shadow and darkness. It hit me hard and made me blind. I squeezed my eyes shut but it was even brighter there. I felt the familiarity of it all. I knew what it was. This was the vision of the dead. The place where all the souls that ever lived and loved and fought and died had gone to rest, but they weren’t really at rest. A place filled with echoes of terrible things. Remains and artifacts. Had I been there before? Was this where I’d find the thing that had been taken from me? Were those the voices of my mother and father calling to me?
I could feel the mark of the old woman inside my guts, and I knew I was seeing all this through her eyes, and that feeling was nothing that a young mind could comprehend—even stronger than the great awakenings in my manhood. I knew that it felt good. I knew that I wanted to feel more.
In the air in front of me in the hall, a pearl necklace appeared.
The beads strewn in a crooked circle, like someone had dropped them there.
I was blind, but I could see it.
I reached out and touched it.
It was real, not some phantom vision.
A solid object, trapped there between worlds.
My fingers touched the smooth surface of the pearls, and I held them, absorbing crackles of living energy that might have been memory traces.
And in that moment, the Blacklight was gone.
Just a glimpse that time.
I was blinded, but I could feel that the necklace was still in my hands.
And the mark sizzled and dissipated, deep down in my guts.
Old Granger stood like a stunned troll in the hall in front of me, knowing that he was free and that I had saved him. But even then I knew it wasn’t enough just to swallow her. She had to be put to rest.
I didn’t know how I knew that, but I did.
That night he took me to the cemetery where she was buried. By then I could hardly hold her in. The blindness had receded, my eyes full of tears. The sickness, on me like nothing I’d ever felt before. My guts boiling with the remains of something that was once a living human soul. My stomach contracting and releasing in a terrible spasm. I opened my mouth and the blackness came up, like something tearing away from me and taking half my insides with it. It spewed and oozed along the soft loam and grass of her grave, disappearing beneath the earth…because that’s where I told it to go.
The pain faded.
I could see again.
Granger gave me a lift to the bus station that night, put a few hundred bucks in my pocket, told me he would make sure they never found out where I went. Said we were even. He took the necklace from me. Said it had belonged to his grandmother. Said he had no idea how in the goddamn hell I got it, but he was grateful, and I gave it up without thinking twice. I would have agreed to anything, just to get out of there. In the bathroom at the bus station, I looked in a mirror and saw my first white hair.
And I felt old, beat to hell.
I knew I shouldn’t feel that way, but I did.
I went a lot of places after that. Nineteen years, and marks everywhere. You wouldn’t believe how many there are. I learned more about fighting, about ways to hurt people, about the dicks on the Blacklight beat. You don’t do what I do for free, and you have to be ready to kick a lot of ass—one ass at a time. There’s always someone looking to explain the unexplainable, and a few others looking to make a fast buck off the dead. I ran with a couple of groups, scored some cash, kept moving. Every time I did it, I got another white hair. By the time I was thirty-one, it was like living in a world of shrieking animals. I saw shadows hiding in corners and heard the voices everywhere I went. It took a long time before I could walk through your average city street and not go crazy. I learned about the bad cities, the ones you don’t wanna go anywhere near if you’re like me. The Southwest is particularly noisy. You stay right the fuck out of Louisiana, especially after Katrina.
There’s levels, you see.
Level one is the world most of us live in. The dead people mostly can’t see you there, and they stay out of your way. A lot of folks are Gifted enough to do silly tricks at level one, like read people’s minds. It ain’t easy to get to level two—where the Blacklight shines—and you need special glasses or contact lenses. I’ve had a lot of practice making the trip. I learned on the job, the hard way. Learned how you use a mark to see across into the world of the dead, when it’s swimming inside you. Learned that physical pain is usually the only way to pull back from it, especially when you go real low. That’s why I carry a knife all the time. That’s why the scars on my right arm. That’s why I wear a long-sleeve formal jacket everywhere I go. Most people who get a good look at me without the jacket think I’m just one of those lost-in-space thirtysomething cutter types, but I’m a creature of habit. Always do myself in the same spot. To remind me.
You have to cut yourself because the Blacklight is like a drug.
You have to be reminded that you are human.
That you are not dead.
Dead feels good—it’s a rush like nothing I can describe in easy words.
And I’ve been feeling it dance in my heart and mind for so long, surrendering to the glow of darkness and the flow of voices and shadows, all tangled up in blue and then back to earth. And every single time you want it more. You want to know everything about that place. You want to stay there forever.
My right arm is a callused road map of winding reminders.
I stumbled into Austin almost by accident. I was traveling up the Gulf Coast and into Texas, on a job for a rich lady who said her little girl was crying in the halls after a car wreck took her. She thought it was happening because she never bought the little girl a pony for her ninth birthday. Those guilty-parent jobs are always bunk. You don’t even lie to people like that. Some mediums do, just to cover their expenses, but that’s bad business. Creates shitty word of mouth. I told the rich lady she was just imagining things, that there were no ghosts hanging around, and she gave me three grand anyway, just for being straight with her.
Austin became my home after that.
The voices there weren’t so bad, but that’s not the reason I stayed.
I pull my truck into the driveway at dawn.
The old bucket refuses to die, no matter how much abuse she takes.
Seven hours on the road back from New Orleans. I took one hell of a risk staying behind the wheel this long, and the mark is already squirming and biting at me, forcing its way up in nasty acidic bursts, climbing to get free. I’m tired and I want it out. But I have to keep it in. Just a little while longer. Questions first.
I click off the Walkman at my waist.
The music dies, like so many other things that come and then leave.
It’s a run-down house dug into the east side of Austin, an old wood-frame two-story hanging at a weird angle on the far edge of the world. You almost can’t see the place because it’s surrounded by so many trees, overgrown and dark, like a bloated storm shroud hovering above something long dead. A pathway through the briar tangle is visible only if you know where to look. The rusty gate gives me some trouble today. I have to push through some low-hanging vines, and dead leaves fall on me as I make my way to the front porch. The wood creaks under my boots like the bones of an old woman.
My key doesn’t work.
Raina comes to the door on the third knock.
She’s beautiful and sad this morning, black hair in an uptight bundle on her head, run through with a knitting needle, eyes green and lost. Her tank top is full of flowers, stained with chili from the night before. She stands there and doesn’t say a word. Like she’s accusing me.
“You changed the locks again,” I say to her.
“Wanna talk about it?”
She backs away and leaves the door open.
I step in carefully.
There’s no foyer. You walk right into the living room, which is huge and annexed to a small dining nook and kitchen area. High-arching beams and low-hanging fixtures. A ceiling fan that was installed last year. Everything swimming in mists of dust and grime. Papers, clothes, old Jenny Craig boxes. A rock fireplace with a wooden mantel filled with framed photos. A Zenith cabinet TV set from 1975, which is officially an antique this year. Reminds me of how old I feel. I’m more than halfway through my thirties now.
She sits down on the couch and picks up her coffee from the end table.
“It’s been a long time, Buck. I was thinking you’d never be back.”
“I’ve been busy.”
“You could have called.”
“I guess I could have. Have you been okay?”
“I got fired last week.”
“From the Magnolia Café?”
“That was two gigs ago, Buck.”
“Were you dancing again?”
“Do you really care?”
She looks me in the eye when she says it, and I see the shame hanging from her face. Raina was always a hateful bitch when she had to ride the poles at the Yellow Rose. She’s still young, two years younger than I am. I try not to think about the sweaty, glazed-over stares of men who pay, the smell of watered-down booze and disinfected leather seats, all that terrible jive. I shrug and let it roll off me like it doesn’t matter.
“This place is turning into a real dump, Raina.”
She takes a sip from the coffee while I try to figure out where the hell my good manners went off to. I struggle for something better:
“It’s good to see you.”
“Do you really mean that?”
She looks at me seriously. “You’ve got one inside you now, don’t you? That’s the only reason why you came here.”
I look at my feet and try to be tactful, but all I come up with is:
“I…wanted to see the old place again.”
“At least you’re not lying anymore, Buck.”
“I never lied to you.”
“You left out the truth.”
“Maybe that’s right. I guess I’m sorry.”
“That makes me feel real special, Buck. Thanks.”
“What do you want from me? You’re not my wife.”
“I’m your friend. Or at least I thought we were friends. You’re just so damn good at compartmentalizing, aren’t you?”
“Sometimes I didn’t know what to say to you back then. So I left things out. I thought I was keeping you safe.”
“A lot of bad fucking shit, Raina.”
She shakes her head and laughs. “Listen to yourself. You didn’t know what to say so you left things out? That’s the way cowards think, Buck.”
“Lots of people are cowards.”
“You’re always gonna go it alone, aren’t you? You’ll never let a woman get close to you.”
“That’s not for me.”
“Why? Because you’re different? That’s bullshit too.”
“I don’t expect you to understand, Raina. It’s just the way things are.”
“I came around your place a lot of times. You never came to the door. I saw your truck outside. You never answered your phone when I called. I thought you hated me.”
“I don’t hate you. Why would I hate you?”
“What then? What did I do?”
“You didn’t do anything. It’s what I did. I guess I thought I had to close the door on all this. But…I’m not sure I can anymore.”
“You should have told me what was wrong. I would have been there for you. I used to think you were different. You never hit on me like the others. I thought you and I were close. I think I even loved you. Is that why you went away?”
“Something happened. I gave up for a while. On everything, I guess.”
She shakes her head and stares at her coffee.
I can see a tear forming in her eye, but she reaches up and wipes it out fast, before it can fall on her face. On any other day, I might be sad for that. Today, I just don’t know.
What the hell is wrong with me?
I let her in a long time ago, then I forced her out, haunted to the end of the earth by dead people and bad magic. I told myself that I was keeping her safe. What was I really doing? What was I really feeling?
“Well, don’t let me keep you from your business, Buck. Go on. Do what you have to do. I’ll be right here when you’re done.”
I don’t know what to tell her.
So I don’t say anything.
How do you explain that things like family are abstract concepts to a guy like me? I’d tell her I don’t believe in love, but I’m not sure I even know what love really is. I’ve had a lot of women, but those comforts turn into sad feelings of emptiness so fast. You get really jaded when you know so many secrets about how temporary everything is. When you have things inside you that never let go. Urgent things that come back again and again. Like the desperate need to be here now.
“Don’t say you’re sorry anymore. Don’t mind me at all. Just go about your business.”
“There’s something happening. It could be…very important. I have to look across, and I need to be here when I do it.”
“You don’t need to ask permission. You don’t need to say anything.”
She looks away from me, and I feel like I should be ashamed.
But I only tell her I’m sorry again.
I met Raina Winston three days after I came to this city.
Her family had all moved on—her two brothers off to see the world as Marines, her father lost in the breeze with another woman. The house, left to her by a dead mother. She told me all about it when I came to her door for the first time, when I knocked and told her there was something about this place that wanted me to be here. That maybe I had seen the house in a dream, or maybe it was a memory I couldn’t finger. I told her a story about it that was almost the truth, then I came clean not long after that and told her a little more. Not everything, of course. I never wanted her to get hurt. Maybe that made me a coward, maybe it didn’t.
She loved me from the first time she saw me. I felt it strong, coming off her in hopeful waves. I thought she might be Gifted at first, but then I realized she was just a lonely little girl trapped in the body of a centerfold, filled with sadness for those who hunger with their eyes and lust for the obvious. Beautiful women who don’t lose their souls in this terrible world sometimes end up like that—hopeful romantics skirting the outer edges of something they’ll probably never find.
I was attracted to her, like any man would be.
I slept with her, like I would have been a fool not to.
But the love she felt for me…it was overwhelming and desperate. Something alien, even beyond my inability to understand the basics of human nature. She gave it to me without thought of reward, and I never gave it back. Because we were not the same, she and I. As much as she wanted to believe that it was fate that brought us together, endless oceans of time bridged by some amazing series of cosmic consciences…I always left her bed before morning.
See, Tom was right: I’ve always believed in fate.
But I don’t know if I believe in love.
So I always walked away and left her wondering why. And still, her eyes were big and hopeful, every time I came back.
Back to this house.
This house is the reason I stayed in Austin.
I lived here when I was a child.
Nobody ever told me that, nobody ever gave me papers that proved it—but I know this is where I was born.
I know, because the first time I saw the place, I had a mark inside me, and when I saw the house through the Blacklight…the overgrowth was gone, the paint was shiny new, and the faint traces of things long departed danced in the front yard, like shadows undefined, cruel teasers of a life that seemed like it belonged to someone else…but it was mine.
Through the Blacklight, I could see myself in that yard.
Myself as a two-year-old boy.
And then it was gone.
I came back here again and again, searching. I never found my mother and father, never saw them. But there were traces. Artifacts. Things left behind. I brought those things back to the world, one at a time, the same way I brought that pearl necklace back at the institution.
Raina stood there and watched me do it—the ghosts rumbling inside my body, showing me where to look, the Blacklight changing channels on me, making me feel as if I were home again, then jarring me into some other moment from some other family’s private soap opera. I couldn’t control it so well back then. I had to cut myself bad to pull back, and that terrified her. By then, my scars were pretty scary, but they were all I had to keep myself from looking too deep. Still, I found the evidence. Over seven years, I found it. Job after job, I would hunt the dead, and when I brought them back with me, I would go to the house, where Raina would be waiting for me, her eyes full of love I could never pay back, full of horror for the terrible burden I kept inside me and on the surface of my skin…and I would call on those marks inside to look across and feel the trace embers of my past. And the artifacts.
I found a pair of goggles—the ones I use now to keep the Blacklight from blinding me—and knew they had been used by my father.
I brought back a shattered shaving mirror and felt the moment when my mother had heaved it to the floor in mad frustration.
An old shoe with the laces missing.
A camera without any film in it.
After years, I hit pay dirt in the basement, prodded along by dead voices that wanted me to see a strongbox buried in the earth beneath the living room. Inside the strongbox, just past a rusted lock that gave easy with two whacks from a ball-peen hammer, was the game changer. The thing I’d searched for all my life.
A ripped and worn old road map of the southwestern United States.
It was dotted in red along the trail that led from Austin, up through El Paso, and into New Mexico and through the town where I was found.
All those little towns along the road marked.
The journey my parents took into the desert.
The trail continued through Arizona and ended near California, where a giant hunk of the map had been torn away, but I could guess what lay ahead. I hit the road, trying to trace each mark that had been left behind. I brought in another Blacklight dick to help me, called in some favors. That was how I met Tom Romilda.
Two years on the road, following my instincts.
So much sweat and blood and the screaming of dead things.
So many scars.
Tom set me up with clients on the road who needed help with bad marks, and I would step in and kick their asses. I’d keep what was left inside me for days on end, using the Blacklight to see what others couldn’t. There were a few clues along the way, things I brought back, but nothing that felt right. It was madness for a while. I’d wake up in a sleazy motel off some dusty back road in Arizona or New Mexico and wonder how I’d gotten there. I would scream at the universe to make some kind of sense, Tom would calm me down a few hours, and then I would rage again. Finally, he gave up on me and went back to New Orleans, but I kept going.
For two more years, I kept going.
There was no paper trail to mark the passing of my mother and father, no witness to their murder—if they even were murdered.
It was as if they’d never existed.
I followed my instincts, and at every turn my instincts betrayed me.
I even had a fucking map and that was no good.
It was starting to feel like one big cosmic joke.
I moved back through the Southwest and I never got near anything that felt like the familiar glow of the house—and the trace of it grew dimmer and dimmer as the marks mocked me. Until, finally, in a southern-fried podunk shithole halfway between the California border and the edge of nowhere, a place where the voices were louder than they’d ever been and marks filled the crumbling streets like shadows upon shadows set loose across the earth, all filled with bad memories and bitter curses…
I met a man who was like me, but a lot older.
He was seventy-three.
He had one tooth in his mouth.
He was the local sheriff.
His badge looked like something that had been unearthed from a tomb, and his eyes were dead and wise, cursed by all the things he’d seen and heard and dreamed. I knew he must know something. I could feel the truth inside him, the way I can read most people, but his pain was deep. And so I asked him where my mother and father were, what had happened to them…and he laughed.
The son of a bitch laughed at me.
You goddamned old man.
How can you laugh at my suffering?
How can you stand there and laugh at me?
His answer was something I’ll never forget. I don’t want to forget. I want it to haunt me until the end of time, because it was the truth I had been seeking all along, and that truth was this:
Nobody cares, son.
And he kept laughing when he said it.
As if it didn’t matter at all.
He had the Gift, which allowed him to see that his tiny little town crawled with lost marks, and he didn’t care at all how they’d gotten there.
That’s how the bad people get away with it.
That’s what the good people don’t understand about America.
He told me there were hundreds of bodies found in the desert every year, sometimes thousands. All unsolved murders. The numbers get to you in the end, he said. It happens everywhere, all over the country, on back roads and desert terrains and stretches of endless wilderness, where a million secrets can be buried forever. Truckloads of bodies discovered, washed up without identities, without fingerprints, without faces, without flesh. The police never go near cases like that, not unless a Blacklight dick gets involved—and even then, it’s always off the books.
The man with one tooth had been a cop in Texas and Arkansas, a sheriff in Colorado. He used to care when he was younger.
But the sheer weight of the numbers broke him in half.
That and the ability to see the spirits of those bodies walking the earth. To know there was nothing he could do to help them find peace. It’s why he moved around so much in the beginning, and why he eventually stopped.
He asked me to kill him, so that he would finally be free.
Free from this world that just didn’t care at all.
I left him there.
Left him laughing.
Then I went back to the house.
Went back to Raina.
She was a little older then, like she’s a little older now.
I never told her anything about any of it.
I left things out, to keep her safe.
I saw her a lot after that, kept hiring out on jobs, still obsessed, still addicted, still hoping for a trace that felt like home. Anything that could prove who I was.
Raina’s love for me, still an alien thing I was never able to pay back.
Her smiles and her tears, silent and tragic in the dark, and I wasn’t even sure I cared. I began to hate myself for that. Hate myself for allowing her the illusion, and always leaving before morning.
Until they announced they were building the fastest train in history.
Until I discovered the train was going to run right through the spot in California where the map had been torn away.
And that was when the fall happened.
“What are you waiting for?”
Her sharp voice brings me back from the memories, and I find that the mark inside me is desperate now, feeling my anxious heart inside this place that used to be my home. The mark feels me as I call on its power, controlling it.
I reach into my satchel and pull out the goggles.
Slip them over my eyes and pull the rubber strap back hard.
Here we go.
As I concentrate on the mark in my guts, I can sense what he’s feeling, and it ain’t pretty. The nasty bastard doesn’t like being manhandled like this. But a nasty bastard gets only one sucker punch with me. Now you pay cash, Billy Badass.
It surrenders to my control, and the power fills me, flowing at my command, making my whole body tingle and my eyes fill with bright darkness…
The room around me polarizes, swirling in shadows, the walls bouncing dark neon blue against the triple-UV lenses, clawing at the glass, trying to make me blind. The contact lenses are good in a pinch, but nothing gets through the goggles. I move across the room, trying to ignore the pulsing X-ray life essence of Raina Winston slouched on the sofa, almost dead in her heart but never giving up on the flesh, twinkling there like the glowing coals of a long-gone fire that once reached for the sky. I looked deep into her one time when I did this. I saw her love for me, and her love for so many others, all swimming just above the surface of her skin, patterns of hope and loneliness and despair and self-hatred.
It was too much then, and it’s too much now.
I move away from her and concentrate on the floor beneath my feet, keeping myself grounded. So many familiar things flashing across my vision, things only half formed, things I’ve felt before. Riddles in the blinding darkness. Nothing here I haven’t seen already. Why am I here? I learned all I could learn from this place years ago.
I’m here because I want to be here.
Because it feels good.
I want to stay.
It flows into me like an old dream, directing my movements, telling me where to put my feet…and I follow it across the floor. Something familiar pings back to me like radar. Something I shouldn’t know, but I do…something just out of my reach…
My foot catches on a loose board.
I haven’t felt that before.
A sound like a wordless voice sings to me in that moment, tells me to stop.
Excerpted from Black Light by Melton, Patrick Copyright © 2011 by Melton, Patrick. Excerpted by permission.
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