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JOE GOLEM AND THE COPPER GIRL (Chapter 1)
The October rain sliced down in razor sheets, billions of tiny needles striking the glass, stone, and concrete of the Drowning City, forcing Joe to turn up the collar of his jacket and keep his face averted from the heavens. He'd rather have been sprawled in a chair in Mr. Church's library with a book and a whiskey tonight, or just about anywhere else than in his little cabin cruiser out on the canals of Lower Manhattan. A storm had churned up New York Harbor to the point where waves were rippling along the city's sunken avenues and crashing against buildings that had withstood fifty years partially submerged but might not stand fifty minutes more.
How much punishment could one city take?
Joe wouldn't even have come out tonight if there hadn't been a little girl involved. If the choice had been between dashing the boat to splinters against the corner of some old Eighteenth Street hotel façade or waiting until the storm passed, and it had been only adults in danger, Joe would have stoked a fire in the hearth and poured himself another glass of whiskey. But Jillian Blum was only twelve years old, and if her mother had been telling even a fraction of the truth, the little girl had reason to be afraid.
There had been those who'd accused Joe of being something of a monster--it was a hazard of the work, and the kind of people Joe and his friend Mr. Church encountered while pursuing that work--and he knew he looked the part. The Lord had not seen fit to make him handsome; Joe looked like a prizefighter who'd spent a career throwing punches a second slower than the other guy. But he was strong and he could take the punishment, and he flattered himself by thinking he was, if nothing else, smarter than he looked.
If you were so smart, Joe thought to himself, you wouldn't be out here tonight.
A thin smile split his grim features and for a moment he didn't mind the stinging rain. He guided the boat, shielding his eyes as he tried to make out the numbers on the buildings he passed. In the more than four decades since earthquakes and floods had turned Lower Manhattan into a drowning city, the people who'd had nowhere else to go, or who were too stubborn to leave, and the disenfranchised who'd come here to flee the burdens of their old society, had built a new civilization here. Some of the buildings were too unstable for anyone but the hopeless to take up residence inside. Others had been painstakingly repaired and adapted to the new paradigm--the lower floors closed off, filled with concrete, or otherwise repurposed. In between were those that seemed solid enough that families and old folks were content to make minimal efforts to block off the moldy, flooded lower levels and carry on as if nothing had changed...as if this part of the city really had become the new Venice.
All of this meant that some buildings had numbers painted or engraved on them, and others had lost any sign of their former identity when the waters rose and the city sank. Rachael Blum had promised him that he couldn't miss their place, and he hoped that would still be true in the midst of the storm. The city was crisscrossed with bridges now--stone and metal and wooden footbridges, some makeshift planking that shifted from month to month. Some of these structures could be hazardous, made of rotting wood, pulleys, and improvised stairs--but Joe knew this part of the Drowning City well enough. He just hadn't wanted to make the complicated trek in the storm.
Lightning seared the sky, followed by a rolling crack of thunder and a loud bang a few blocks distant. Joe wondered what the lightning had struck, and if it would burn. It was ironic that in the Drowning City, fire could be so devastating. There was plenty of water, but only a handful of volunteer firemen, who were often otherwise occupied helping the tiny police force organized by the self-proclaimed and apparently innocently sincere Mayor of the Drowning City, Melody Heath. Mrs. Heath could barely keep her officers alive--every scavenger, pirate, and thief in Lower Manhattan would rather turn to murder than be stuck in a jail cell where they'd be beaten, fed the guards' leftovers, and held until someone reminded Mrs. Heath they were incarcerated to begin with. Joe and Mr. Church had handed criminals over to her in the past, and Joe was convinced she either didn't know about the brutality of her jail guards or didn't believe the rumors. Joe had never given anyone over to Mrs. Heath's police unless he felt they deserved a beating or two, but he and Mr. Church always remembered to go and let the Mayor know when the prisoner had served the decreed amount of time in jail.
If Rachael Blum's story checked out, and someone truly was menacing her daughter, Joe would make sure the guy stayed away for good. If he couldn't put enough fear into the creep himself, some time in Mrs. Heath's jail would do it, he felt sure. All of Rachael Blum's talk about the man being some kind of goblin or demon had made little impression on Joe. He'd seen all kinds of things in the years he'd been working with Mr. Church--ghosts and demons among them--but never a goblin. Just because some ugly, greasy-looking creep lurked outside your daughter's bedroom window, that didn't make him a demon.
Rachael Blum's fear hadn't been imaginary, however. The woman had been skittish, looking over her shoulder even in the quiet safety of Mr. Church's parlor. The memory of her haunted gaze had made Joe keep his promise to visit her home this evening instead of waiting until morning, when the storm would have passed.
Now he spotted the building she had described, realizing that he had noticed it many times before. Each of the windows bowed outward from the stone façade, like the windows of the captain's quarters in the aft of an old schooner. A beautiful home. In a city with a high population of thieves and scavengers, keeping such a home beautiful must have been quite a challenge. Mr. Blum had apparently managed to repel or keep out such water rats in the past, so why was this one creep so deeply frightening to his wife?
Joe held the throttle back, the boat rolling on the waves that ripped along Nineteenth Street and the cross current from Seventh Avenue. He saw the dark opening of the building next to the Blums' home that had been converted into the sort of boathouse unique to the Drowning City--a tall, reinforced opening in what had once been a third-story wall. Waiting for a lull, he gave the throttle a little tap and floated into the boathouse, carried along by the storm and a wave of curiosity.
When Rachael Blum had arrived at Simon Church's apartment early that morning, the sound of the doorbell chiming through the vast warren of rooms took Joe by surprise. Uninvited visitors were rare at Mr. Church's residence. The postman--who paid only occasional visits--and various messengers and delivery men knew to deposit their burdens in the large drawer built beside the front door. Mr. Church never worried overmuch about thieves or assassins attempting to use the mail drawer as a method of intrusion or avenue of attack--even though there had been several such gambits, one involving a murderous capuchin monkey and another a small cluster of poisonous snakes. The madman Dr. Cocteau had even once attempted to use the mail drawer as an entry point for a trio of homicidal homunculi meant to end Mr. Church's meddling in Cocteau's affairs once and for all. But Mr. Church's powers of deduction and analysis were not the only weapons in his armory. The same magic that he had used to keep himself alive since the Victorian age had been put to use creating powerful wards that warned of any intrusion, natural or supernatural.
But if someone wanted to make their way to the front door and ring the bell, there was no ward that would prevent it.
The chimes had sounded through the house. Feeling foolish in his stocking feet, Joe had taken the time to slip his boots on and then made his way quickly down the steps and through the large foyer, adjusting his suspenders and running a hand through his floppy, unkempt hair. He couldn't make himself more handsome, but he hoped at least to be presentable, even as his curiosity ran ahead of him.
Even arriving at Simon Church's front door was no simple thing. Mr. Church owned all of the structures that still stood on his block of Lower Manhattan, as well as the old hat company building directly across the canal from his front door. All underwater ingress had been blocked and the lower, flooded floors closed off from the upper, except for the hollowed-out former law office that Joe and Church used as a boathouse. There were no docks attached to Mr. Church's apartments and no bridges from any of the surrounding buildings, except for the wooden footbridge that led to the front door from the former hat company, which could be raised like a drawbridge. Thus, the only approach was to arrive at the hat company building by boat or bridge and then cross the drawbridge to Mr. Church's front door.
Nobody arrived there by accident.
Joe opened the door to find a lovely, thin, pale woman standing on the platform. She wore a light sweater the color of jade, and her wide eyes reflected back the clouds that loomed overhead, warning of the impending storm. From the way the woman stood, it was clear she had been about to surrender and depart. Now she looked at Joe with a strange combination of gratitude and fear, as though now that someone had answered the door, she was frightened of the consequences of her arrival.
"Can I help you?"
"Are you...Simon Church?" she asked, though even as she spoke the words Joe could see her appraising him and realizing her error.
"No, ma'am. I'm his associate. You can call me Joe."
When he invited her in, she glanced over her shoulder as if fearful that she might be observed.
"What can we do for you, Miss...?" Joe asked as he closed the door behind her.
"Mrs.," she corrected. "Rachael Blum."
"Are you in some kind of trouble, Mrs. Blum?"
"Not me," she said quickly, pausing to weigh the words as if she herself were uncertain of their veracity. "It's my daughter. She was ill. Badly ill. The doctors told us she had only months to live."
Joe ran a rough hand over the bristly stubble on his chin. "But you said she was ill. She's not sick anymore?"
For just a moment, the dark cloud over Mrs. Blum's features vanished and joy shone from her eyes. Then the grim weight of whatever haunted her returned.
"Far from it. Jillian's better. So much better." Mrs. Blum paused, and Joe thought she looked almost sickened by her next words. "She's almost too well. So healthy it seems, well, unnatural."
Intrigued as he was, Joe still didn't see where he and Church came into it.
"If you have any concerns--"
"I know I should just be happy, but--"
"--shouldn't you talk to a doctor? It's not the kind of thing Mr. Church and I normally handle."
Mrs. Blum shook her head. "It's strange and a little frightening, but that's not what brought me here. Jillian's been having nightmares, horrible dreams about a withered, ugly little man who visits her in the night and tries to persuade her to run away with him, promises to carry her off if she hasn't the courage to go willingly. 'Courage,' that's how he puts it."
"Still--" Joe began.
"It's not a dream!" Mrs. Blum snapped, tears springing to her eyes. She waved her hands as if she had no idea what to do with them. "Last night I heard her whimpering in her bedroom and I went in. The thing was there, this little goblin, sitting on the windowsill. I screamed and grabbed a lamp, but when I went to hurl it at the thing, it looked at me with terrible eyes...and it called me by name.
"It knew my name!" Rachael Blum repeated, the horror of this fact clearly still deeply unsettling her. "I threw the lamp, but it leaped out into the dark. Jillian screamed for her father, and he came running, and the three of us stayed up together the rest of the night."
Joe frowned. "Where are your husband and daughter now?"
"Home. Asleep," Mrs. Blum said. "Steven, my husband, intends to stand guard over Jillian this evening and to kill the creature if it returns, but I fear for them both. For us all. With her illness, and now this strange new vitality...I can't help wondering if this thing is somehow responsible for all of that. Whatever the case, my husband would not approve of my seeking help, but I've heard stories about Simon Church and I knew if anyone could help..."
She trailed off there.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Blum," Joe said, frowning deeply. "Mr. Church is an old man. He relies on certain medicines and...equipment, and he rarely leaves the premises."
How could he have explained to her the strange mechanics the old detective had installed inside his own chest, the gears, metal chambers, and tubes that kept him alive? Magic had kept Simon Church from aging like an ordinary man, but it couldn't make him immortal. He often said that entropy could be deceived but never defeated; thus the combination of magic and mechanical apparatus had staved off the reaper for many, many decades, but could not do so forever.
"You could ask him," Mrs. Blum said desperately. "Please?"
After a moment, Joe nodded. "Tell you what. Let me come out there tonight. I'll make sure no harm comes to your family. If this thing shows up, I'll deal with it. And if I can't, I'll try to talk Mr. Church into coming out himself tomorrow."
In her relief, Rachael Blum was beautiful. Her beauty made Joe even more determined to help her, and he knew that was dangerous. He'd nearly been killed for beautiful women before, and it rarely ended well.
That night, Joe stood in the rain on the front stoop of the Blum residence, his hair wet and slick against his skull. Beneath his heavy coat he carried a pistol in a shoulder holster, the gun adding bulk beneath his left arm. Joe didn't like guns, but Mr. Church had long ago persuaded him that a gun was sometimes a necessary tool. There were dangers in the city that even the scavengers did not understand. Bullets weren't always effective, but even in the rare cases when they were not, they could usually buy a few precious seconds for Joe to think of some other way to avoid being killed. And since he had no idea what, if anything, had been lurking in Jillian Blum's dreams and outside her bedroom window, he figured he was better safe than sorry.
Joe heard voices raised in argument beyond the heavy door and tensed, wondering if he ought to interfere. When his patience wore thin and the rain had nearly soaked through his jacket, he pounded on the door again. The wind whipped at him, waves crashing against the building just a few feet below the stoop.
With a loud thunk, the lock was thrown back and the door hauled open, but it wasn't Rachael Blum standing silhouetted in the warm, golden light of the foyer. Her husband was thin and olive-complexioned, with eyes so brown they were nearly black. He dressed in dark trousers and a crisp white shirt, the sort of business attire that was rare in the Drowning City and much more common in Upper Manhattan, where the water had never filled the streets and where business, architecture, and finance had raced ahead to the future, leaving the Drowning City to retreat into an earlier age and create a culture of its own. There were still some families in Lower Manhattan who had money, who owned businesses, and who cared enough to stay and try to help create that culture--or at least profit from it--but they were rare. Mr. Blum had Joe's respect for that alone, but judging by the look on his face, he didn't seem to want it.
"My wife's just told me about her visit to you today," the man said angrily. "You're not welcome here. You're not wanted."
Joe studied Mr. Blum carefully, saw the fear in his eyes, and realized the man was just as haunted as his wife. Why wouldn't he be? A man like Blum would be hesitant to turn to thuggish policemen or an unelected mayor with his troubles; he'd want to solve them himself.
"I just want to help, Mr. Blum." He thrust out a hand. "I'm Joe. And whatever it is that's threatening your daughter, I promise you I've dealt with worse."
Blum hesitated, leaving Joe standing in the rain, both of them buffeted by the storm. Then he seemed to deflate a little before he replied.
"Define 'dealt with,'" he said.
Rachael Blum appeared in the foyer behind him. "Steven," she said emphatically. "Let him in. This is what he does. If he can't help us--"
"What I mean is that I've seen things most people wouldn't even believe existed," Joe assured Mr. Blum. "Unnatural things. I've fought them. Sometimes I've caught them. And sometimes I've killed them."
"Whatever this thing is, I don't want it caught," Blum said, eyes alight with righteous fury. "It's threatening my daughter, Joe. I want it dead."
Joe gave a single nod. "I'll see what I can do."
Steven Blum took a deep breath and let it out. Then he stepped back and let Joe in.
Drowsy and stiff, Joe blinked and forced his eyes open wide. He yawned and stretched, knocking a knee against the girl's bed, which caused her to stir. He froze, hoping he hadn't woken her, but just as her breathing began to deepen again she snapped awake, lifted her head, and looked around fearfully.
"Sorry," Joe said. "I'll be more careful."
Jillian Blum smiled sweetly, but her smile didn't reach her eyes. 0He saw only sadness and worry there. Joe thought to himself that he had never before met an entire family that seemed so haunted. And yet he could have sworn they were haunted by disparate things. There seemed to be a different tension in each member of the Blum clan. Jillian seemed skittish, as if she were guilty of some deception. Joe hadn't spent a lot of time around twelve-year-old children, but he knew that they were old enough to keep their own counsel and to not always trust their parents with the truth.
"It's all right," the girl said.
She glanced at her father, who sat slumbering in a high-backed chair in the far corner of the room. Steven Blum had made it clear he had no intention of letting Joe stay the night in his daughter's room without him present, but he'd nodded off before midnight. Joe saw something in the girl's glance that underlined his thoughts about Jillian keeping secrets. She seemed wary of her father.
What aren't you telling me? he thought.
As the girl settled down again, drawing her floral duvet up around her neck and nestling deeply into her pillows, Joe studied what little of her face he could see. She'd turned from him, and her wild hair obscured part of her profile, but still he found himself fascinated by her strange luminescence. Her hair had a bright sheen and her skin had a radiant glow, in a hue like burnished copper. Rachael Blum had shown Joe photographs of her daughter, and the girl had always been pretty. But in those old pictures, Jillian's complexion had been more like her mother's, pale with the faint blush of rose at her cheeks.
He had also seen a photo of Jillian when she had been ill, and the contrast was startling. She had been thin, drawn, and gray. Only her eyes had been the same, for Jillian had striking eyes, with flecks of gold and green surrounded by a ring of purple. She must have inherited them from a grandparent or great-grandparent, Joe figured, since neither of her parents had such startling eyes.
In that old photo, there had been a small scar on the girl's cheek, the result--according to her mother--of a mishap involving an uninterested cat, an enthusiastic but unsteady toddler, and the corner of a fireplace. The new Jillian, this copper girl, showed no evidence of that injury. The scar had healed.
Unusual as her eyes, her remarkable recovery, and her vibrant health were, however, Jillian's most arresting feature was the coppery cast of her skin. Her hair was lush and had the same golden orange hue, and her flesh seemed almost to have been forged by a metalsmith. The curves of her face gleamed in the dimly lit room, the copper color warm and rich. Whatever had gifted her with this new vitality had left her more than cured.
Joe watched the sleeping girl for another moment. She snored lightly, but even from this angle he could see a slight crinkling of her brow. She did not rest easily.
Troubled, wishing he could look inside the minds of these people to learn what it was they were not telling him, Joe settled deeper into his chair and wished he had brought a book. If he could have read, it might have been easier for him to keep his eyes open. Instead, he tried to focus on the two tall windows, which rattled in their frames with every gust of wind. Rain pelted the glass as the storm howled outside. The whole building seemed to groan with the waxing and waning of the storm's strength, and the gossamer curtains billowed in the cool breeze that slid in through the gaps between window and sill. Mr. Blum had wanted to keep the windows closed and locked, which Joe had informed him would be foolish. If some nighttime creature actually was tormenting Jillian, hoping to spirit the girl away, they didn't want to keep it out. They wanted to let it in, so Joe could teach it a lesson about preying on little girls.
The clamor of the rain began to blur into white noise and he grew drowsy again. Focusing on the lamp beside Jillian's bed--an antique brought from downstairs to replace the one her mother had broken--Joe tried to practice a meditation technique that Mr. Church had taught him, but to no avail. A dim light burned inside the hand-painted glass globe of the lamp, but it was more soothing than illuminating. The pink, white, and crimson rose patterns painted on the glass made him feel warm and content, until his thoughts blurred like the sound of the rain.
The word floated across Joe's sleeping thoughts without any significance. His unconscious mind did not recognize the voice, ignoring the intrusion into his slumber. Even the rattle of the window in its frame did not cause him to stir, for the windows had been rattling all night. But he heard the flap of the curtains and his body felt the new chill as a fuller gust of wind stormed into Jillian Blum's bedroom. Droplets of moisture touched his right arm, and he shivered in his sleep.
And opened his eyes.
He found himself gazing at the hand-painted rose on the glass globe of Jillian's lamp. Blinking once, he focused beyond it and saw the girl huddled in bed with the covers pulled up to her chin, copper skin almost unearthly against the linens. Her purple-limned eyes were open wide in confusion and fear. In the same instant, Joe's mind raced backward, pulling together the strands of the waking world that had immediately preceded his own awakening.
The girl was staring at the window.
Joe turned, fully awake at last, and saw the dark figure silhouetted against the storm. Cadaverously thin, it was still not slender enough to have slithered through the few inches Mr. Blum had allowed, so it had pushed the window open, letting the wind and the rain blow in. When it had first begun visiting Jillian, the girl had thought she was dreaming, and so had her mother. But the monster was neither nightmare nor imagination; it was entirely real.
Now it slid itself halfway across the windowsill, hands clutching the frame. It wheezed damply, moving slowly and with obvious effort, though its body had almost no mass. Pale and wizened, the creature seemed little more than the husk of a man, and Joe understood what Mrs. Blum had described better now. Drenched with rain, struggling to move, it looked entirely inhuman. Not a demon or a ghost, but perhaps something quite like a goblin after all.
"No," Jillian whispered.
Her voice drove Joe to action. Perhaps the thing had not noticed that she wasn't alone, or perhaps it didn't care. Either way, he had to act before it saw its own peril.
Bolting from the chair, he lunged toward the creature. In motion, he heard a shout of alarm and rage, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Mr. Blum rising as well, but his focus was on the creature. Hearing the commotion, it looked up as Joe reached it. He grabbed a fistful of its wet, greasy hair, feeling some of it come out at the roots as he started to drag it further into the room.
"Kill it!" Mr. Blum roared. "Kill it, damn you!"
Jillian began to shriek, covering her ears and driving herself up against the headboard of her bed as if she could escape right through the wall.
His grip on its hair giving way, Joe yanked the goblin's head back and clutched its throat, hauling it bodily into the room. Its mottled, pale skin left a trail of filth and slime on the sill, and it almost slipped out of his grasp, so oily was its toadlike flesh. The creature squeezed its eyes shut and cringed like a frightened child, wishing its pain away.
"What the hell are you?" Joe asked. "And what've you done to the girl?"
Not what did it want with the girl, but what had it done to her. He hadn't meant to phrase it that way, but one look at her bright copper skin and he'd known that was the real question.
"Don't talk to it!" Blum snapped. "Demons are liars. Just kill it. We don't know what it's capable of!"
A hammering on the bedroom door was followed by cries from Mrs. Blum, out in the hall. In the back of his mind, Joe registered that Mr. Blum had locked them all inside his daughter's bedroom, and locked his wife out.
"Kill it!" Blum shouted angrily.
But that wasn't the way Joe worked. He and Simon Church had destroyed their share of monsters, but they had also helped restless spirits find peace. They didn't kill without reason. He was firm in this conviction, though he could barely think above Jillian's shrieking, Mr. Blum's shouting, and Mrs. Blum's hammering on the door.
"What do you want here?" Joe demanded, shaking the goblin.
The creature opened its eyes and Joe was taken aback by the depths of its anguish...and by the startling color of its irises. Flecks of green and gold, ringed in purple.
"My baby," the goblin croaked.
Joe stared. "What the--" he began.
Then he saw the creature's eyes go wide--eyes like Jillian's--as its focus shifted to something behind him. Alarmed, he turned, but too late. Steven Blum's fist connected with his temple, and Joe staggered aside, catching himself on the footboard of Jillian's bed.
Mr. Blum began to beat the goblin, pummeling its face and body with strength Joe would not have credited if he hadn't seen it himself. With a savage snarl, Blum dragged the creature toward the open window as it scrabbled for purchase on the pine plank floor.
"Daddy!" the girl screamed.
Joe saw the goblin look up at her with those eyes that matched her own, and suddenly he remembered something Rachael Blum had said about the night she'd walked in on the thing slinking into her daughter's room. I threw the lamp, she had said, but it leaped out into the dark. Jillian screamed for her father...
"Son of a bitch," Joe muttered.
He crossed the room in two long strides. In addition to being smarter than he looked, Joe was also faster than he looked. As he tried to manhandle the creature out the window, Mr. Blum heard him coming and twisted around, but not in time. Joe splayed a huge hand across the man's head and shoved, bouncing his head off the window frame hard enough to crack the glass.
Lightning split the sky, and as the thunder rolled across the city, Mr. Blum turned toward him, hatred and desperation burning in his eyes. Then the man hissed, revealing rows of small, jagged teeth and a raw, red gullet. The goblin was forgotten as Blum stalked toward Joe, but of course the creature sprawled on the floor, weak and in pain, was not a goblin at all...any more than the man now advancing upon Joe was Steven Blum.
"Please!" Jillian cried, now scrambling to the end of her bed and looking on in fear and hope. "Please help us!" She clung to the footboard as if her bed were a sailing ship and the wooden floor below a sea full of hungry sharks. With the wind and rain howling in and the thunder booming again, the illusion was complete.
"Nobody wants you here!" Blum cried. "It's my turn, damn it. My turn!"
With these last words, his voice became ragged and bestial, and it was laden with so much anguish that Joe didn't know which was the more pitiful creature: the one sprawled on the floor, or this thing masquerading as the father of Jillian Blum.
It grew taller and thinner as it came at him, but Joe only noticed the way its fingers had lengthened into wicked claws when it swung at him. He rolled with it, thinking a punch was coming, but the thing that had been Blum slashed him instead, and he felt the sting and smelled the metallic tang of his own blood.
It pissed him off.
The thing that had been Blum grabbed Joe by the arms and darted its mouth toward his neck, as if it meant to tear out his throat. Joe drove his head forward, smashing its nose and breaking teeth. With a roar, the thing shoved him backward, and he struck the chair it had been sleeping in when it was Blum. Joe and the chair toppled with a crash that shattered a lamp and a side table, but he was up again a moment later.
Joe grabbed the toppled chair and hefted it, intending to beat the Blum-thing to death with it, but by then the creature had reached Jillian's bed. The girl shook her head in mute horror, glancing pleadingly at the hideous goblin, which only now began weakly to rise from the floor. Rachael Blum's pounding on the bedroom door matched the pounding in Joe's head.
Reaching for the girl, the Blum-thing smiled a terrible, jagged, yearning smile.
Joe drew his gun and shot the Blum-thing three times, the first shot spinning it away from the girl's bed, the second and third pinning it against a wall, spattering it with the creature's blood. Jillian clapped both hands over her mouth as the Blum-thing's legs gave out beneath it and it collapsed to the floor, small pools of black blood quickly spreading across the pine and running in little streams between the planks.
Joe didn't like guns. Didn't like killing.
Though lighter now by three bullets, the weapon felt heavier as he slid it back into its holster. He glanced at the goblin-creature as it staggered across the room to Jillian Blum's bed. The filthy, withered husk with its oily toad skin should have terrified her, but of course she reached for it, and the two embraced, girl and monster both weeping. Daughter and father both weeping.
Joe unlocked the bedroom door to stop Rachael Blum from pounding on the wood. Mrs. Blum hurried in, but she made it only three steps before she froze, staring at the bizarre scene. Joe stood and watched with her as the dead Blum-thing on the floor began to wither, looking less and less like Steven Blum, while the goblin embracing Rachael's daughter filled out, gaining strength and vitality.
Jillian and her father turned and looked at Rachael and Joe, both with those startling, almost hypnotic eyes, and Mrs. Blum nearly fainted. She would have fallen if Joe hadn't been there to hold her up. Filthy as he was, there was no denying that the man holding Jillian was her husband.
"Steven?" Rachael ventured.
"How..." he began, his voice a weak rasp. "How could you not have known it wasn't me?"
Stricken, Rachael began to cry. She glanced at the crumpled thing bleeding on the floor and then back at her husband and daughter.
"I saw it. Your eyes. But you said..." she replied, and then shook her head. "He said it was part of the ritual, part of the life energy that he'd given to heal Jillie."
Joe sighed, a tired smile touching his lips. So even Mrs. Blum had known more than she had said.
"It's been a long night," Joe said. "If you all don't mind, I'm going to go home and get some rest."
Steven Blum looked at him. "You have to understand, I didn't ask for this. He...it found me." They all glanced at the withered, dying thing. The goblin, or whatever it was. "Somehow it knew Jillian didn't have much time left. It said it could help, that if I would give up half of my own strength and life, it knew a ritual that would give that life to my daughter. And it...it worked."
Now Blum looked at his wife. "But it came that night, while we were sleeping. The ritual wasn't done, it said. And it took the rest of me, leeched the life from me and into itself, and when it was done..."
"It had your face," Joe said.
Steven nodded, glancing at the thing one last time before turning to look at his daughter, suddenly examining her more closely than before. Joe knew what he sought--some sign that the effects of the ritual were wearing off. But no, Jillian's skin still shone with that unearthly vigor, gleaming like burnished copper. Wherever she went in life, she would draw appreciative stares for her strange beauty and the vibrant energy that seemed to flow from her.
"Look," Joe said, yawning, "I'm glad I could help. Really. But I'm stiff as hell from sitting in that chair, and"--he touched the gashes on his face--"I wanna clean these up. I heal pretty good, but still."
Jillian leaped off the bed and ran to him, crushing him in an embrace. She looked up into his face with those beautiful, peculiar eyes.
Joe endured the hug. "Any time." When she released him, he turned to leave. "Good luck, kid."
"Wait," Rachael Blum called. She pointed to the goblin thing in spreading pools of dark blood. "What about that thing?"
Joe arched an eyebrow. He'd just saved her little family, and now she wanted him to clean up after them, too? Grumbling with irritation, he crossed the room, rolling up his sleeves. He stepped carefully, avoiding the blood as best he could.
Only when he crouched beside it did he see that the goblin-thing was not quite dead. It twitched, perhaps sensing someone near, and opened its eyes halfway, but whatever those pale, blanched orbs saw did not exist in this world. Joe wondered if, as creatures breathed their last, they might have a view into the afterlife.
"Not fair," the dying thing said in a thin, reedy voice.
Rachael Blum let out a gasp when it spoke, but Jillian and her father only stared sadly at the thing. Perhaps they had seen the tears streaking its face.
"Tricked," said the goblin. "Tricked me."
"What?" Steven said, thinking he was being accused. "That's--"
Joe shushed him.
"Who tricked you?" he asked.
The goblin's lower lip trembled and its tears came faster. "It said it could...save Danny. Make him...better. Half a life to save...my son."
"Oh, my God," Mrs. Blum whispered.
"But he took it all...took them...and moved away." The last two words held more anguish than Joe had ever heard in a human voice. A human voice.
"My turn," the dying creature said, as blood began to bubble between its lips and its chest began to hitch. "My turn for a...family. My turn...for a "
The man--not a monster; just another father--took rattling breath, eyelids fluttering.
"Life," he rasped.
And then was still.
Joe stared at the dead man a moment then rose to his feet. The Blum family watched him as if waiting for some bit of wisdom. He left them there, still waiting, because he had no words sufficient to express how much he wished that he had never met them.
The storm still raged outside, waves crashing along the canals of the Drowning City, more perilous than ever. Morning was a ways off yet, but Joe welcomed the darkness and the storm. It felt right to him.
Exhausted as he was, he would not sleep tonight.
JOE GOLEM AND THE COPPER GIRL. Copyright 2012 by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden.