Don Drake is living rough in a sink estate on the outskirts of Edinburgh, doing cheap spells for even cheaper customers while fending off the local lowlifes. Six months ago, Don fled from London to Glasgow to track down his old girlfriend Debbie the alchemist.
With the Burned Man gradually driving him mad, Don meets with an ancient and mysterious tramp-slash-magician, with disastrous consequences. Now his old accomplices must step into save Don from himself, before he damns himself for good this time.
File Under: Dark Fantasy [ Fallen So Far | Smacked Up | Devil Don’t Care | Hell or Heaven ]
About the Author
Author hometown: Norwich, UK
Read an Excerpt
A Burned Man Novel
By Peter McLean
Angry RobotCopyright © 2017 Peter McLean
All rights reserved.
I never meant to start using again. I dare say no one ever does.
I woke up on the floor of the squat and managed to roll over and throw up on the rancid carpet before I choked on my own puke. God only knew who this place had originally belonged to, but they had shit-awful taste in carpets. I wiped a streamer of snot and vomit from my mouth with the back of my hand, and groaned. The rubber tube was still loosely knotted around my upper arm, dangling there like a flaccid worm. I dragged it off with a shudder of disgust and sat up, my amulet swinging against my sweaty chest on its rotting leather thong. My works were lying beside me on a dirty plate. I looked at the lighter and the burned spoon, the discarded cotton wool and disposable plastic syringe.
No, I never meant to start using again, but it helped. Smack might not affect the Burned Man but it sure as hell affected me, enough to shut the little fucker out of my head. For a while, anyway.
"Fucking hell, Don," I muttered to myself.
I put my head in my hands and pulled air in through cracked lips, wincing at the sour vinegar aftertaste of heroin in the back of my throat. My stomach turned over and I shuddered, sure I was going to be sick again. It passed eventually and I dragged myself to my feet. I leant my arms on the windowsill and stared out through the filthy pane of glass at rows of grim, grey flats, the crumbling high-rise across the waste ground and the distant railway tracks. It looked like it might snow again later.
Edinburgh is a beautiful city, with its ancient Royal Mile and the castle and the stately Georgian New Town. I didn't live in that part of Edinburgh, though. This was the Muirhouse estate and it was an utter shithole.
I stooped and picked up the whisky bottle from beside my greasy sleeping bag. I took a swig and swished it around my mouth before I forced myself to swallow. Christ but it was hideous. You'd think you could get good whisky in Scotland, wouldn't you? Well you can, but not on my budget you couldn't. This stuff could have taken the paint off a car at ten paces.
Oi, tosser, the Burned Man thought in my head. Are you off the fucking nod yet?
I groaned. As soon as the heroin wore off, the fucking thing came straight back again. Every fucking time.
"Fuck off," I muttered, and took another gulp of whisky.
Put that down and go check the traps.
"Fuck the traps," I said.
Are you falling over money all of a sudden? it sneered at me. You've got a fucking job tonight, and you need that money. You want to go without your fix? You're good and fucking hooked now, you stupid cunt. You need the money.
I groaned again, and looked down at my works. It was right, of course. I had maybe half a gram of gear left in the grubby little plastic bag. I did need the money – I needed to score, and soon. I pulled on a stained T-shirt, scrubbed my hands over my straggly beard, and picked my coat up off the floor. That had been a good coat once, a full length wool and cashmere blend. It wasn't looking too good now, I had to admit.
Tell me again why we aren't just taking what we fucking want? the Burned Man said. This is fucking pathetic, cocking about like this. Is this what I made you powerful for, so you could live in this shithole and catch fucking rats? You need drug money? Go and take it, then. Rob a fucking bank! I can burn any cunt who tries to stop us.
It wasn't really that fucking simple, was it?
I could hardly explain that to the Burned Man, though. The thing was a sodding archdemon for fucksake, and it had absolutely no conscience and no morals whatsoever. Now I'm no one's idea of a white knight, don't get me wrong. I was a recently reformed hitman, for one thing, but back when I was working I had killed gangsters and terrorists and black magicians, for other gangsters and terrorists and black magicians. I had never killed an innocent – right up until the day that I did.
I was racked with guilt about that, and I was very, very scared of two things. One was the fact that the Burned Man was now effectively eating my soul. The other was something Adam had said to me last year.
Diabolists go to Hell, Don.
I knew I would never forget those words, and the awful certainty of them.
Adam had been talking about the fallen Dominion then, of course, about how the Dominion had summoned Bianakith to bring Menhit through the Veils and back to Earth from her own dimension to use as a weapon in its heavenly war, but that wasn't the point. Yes, the Dominion had been so far gone that it had resorted to diabolism to achieve its ends, and that had forced its fall once and for all. Yes, Menhit had killed it in single combat and the mouth of Hell had opened up to claim it, but all of that was beside the point too. The point was that I was a fucking diabolist. I had been for twenty years, and Adam knew that.
Adam never said anything for no reason, and I knew damn well that the smarmy fucker had been aiming that comment at me. I was well and truly on the slippery slope to damnation and I knew it all too well, so no, I wasn't going to start making things even fucking worse for myself by murdering innocent people to feed my fucking heroin addiction. And I wasn't going to Hell, not if I had anything to do with it.
I didn't need to, as far as I could see. I was pretty much already living there.
I turned up the collar of my coat and let myself out into the corridor.
One of the local lowlifes was heading towards me with an ill looking mate in tow.
"It's the ratcatcher, ey?" the bloke said. "Awright Ratty?"
I gave him a noncommittal nod and shouldered past him down the hall. The block of flats had been condemned a couple of years ago and was now just sitting there waiting for someone to be bothered to bulldoze it. They would sooner or later, as the council redevelopment work made its slow way across the estate, but not yet. Half the neighbourhood was the same, the buildings deserted except for a few derelicts and junkies. My people.
I trudged down the stairs to where I had set the first trap on the bottom landing. There was nothing in it, but at least the trap itself was still there. I'd had a few nicked after I first started setting them, and I'd had to go around kicking in doors until I got them back. Traps cost money, after all, and there was the matter of respect to consider too. I might have sunk to this but I'd be buggered if I was going to let some half-feral junkie steal from me.
I shoved the back door open and pushed my way through into the overgrown wilderness that had once been a communal garden behind the row of five-storey flats. The second trap was just behind a rusty downpipe, and I could hear the squealing already. I felt a tight grin stretch my face as I crouched down and looked at the rat. It was well and truly trapped, its back broken by the heavy steel bar. I knew how it felt, figuratively speaking anyway. I certainly knew what trapped felt like, with the heroin ruling my every waking hour with a rod of sick need and Menhit somewhere out there in the world, waiting for me to show my face.
I pulled a sack out of my coat pocket and grabbed the rat tightly around the throat before I eased the spring of the trap back and freed it. The fucking thing still tried to bite me but I stuffed it headfirst into the sack and did it up with a ziplock cable tie. That was one.
The next two traps were empty, and I tried to remember how many rats I actually needed for tonight's job. They're not as good as toads, but they were what I had. At least we weren't short of the fucking things around here. I was trying to work out the rat to toad conversion ratio in my head when I realized I couldn't actually remember what tonight's job even was.
I stopped and slumped against the damp grey pebbledash wall, breathing unevenly.
"Fucking hell," I muttered.
I knew there was this geezer, some clap-raddled lowlife pimp who had somehow got wind of what I was and what I could do. He had promised me a hundred quid, I remembered that. I remembered that hundred quid extremely well. I had to ... Fuck it. No, it was no good, it was gone. Bollocks. A spell, obviously. Not a summoning, I didn't do them any more. Not with the state of my karma I didn't. Just a spell, the sort of minor shit you could do with a rat's lifeblood and a candle. Or maybe it was two rats, I wished I could fucking remember.
Get on with it, the Burned Man growled in my head. I don't want to be stuck in here when you start going fucking cold turkey.
"Get the fuck out then!" I roared at it.
I winced when I saw a couple of young women turn and stare at me from the other side of the waste ground, from in front of the flats that were still occupied. The looks on their faces said "crazy old junkie" all too plain.
"Bawbag!" one shouted at me.
The other just took a long drag on her cigarette and shook her head. They turned and hurried away, pushing their charity shop prams ahead of them. I sagged down onto my haunches and put my head between my knees, fighting back tears. How the fuck had I come to this? For the thousandth time that month I thought about taking my amulet off and begging her for help, for forgiveness. For the thousandth time I told myself why I couldn't.
You need another fucking rat, dipshit, the Burned Man told me. Spell of binding, remember? Fucking hell, you don't, do you, you worthless sack of shit. Two rats and two sprigs of sage. Even you can find fucking sage in this jungle, can't you?
I sighed and pulled myself back up to my feet. I supposed I could, at that. The amulet weighed heavily around my neck as I followed the side of the building, past the big damp patch where the guttering was broken and the black mould on the wall seemed to be thicker and more poisonous looking every day. I finally found the last trap, and allowed myself a smile as I saw the rat struggling feebly in its steel maw. It was a poor specimen really, small and scrawny and nearly dead, but it would have to do. I bundled it into another sack and went in search of some wild sage.
I was rooting through the undergrowth when I realized there was someone standing behind me.
"Awright Ratty?" he said.
I looked around and saw the grubby ned I'd pushed past on the landing standing over me. He had a different mate with him this time, both of them wearing greasy tracksuits that reminded me of Harry the Weasel from back in London.
I missed London, where I knew the rules and everything made sense. Up here I knew bugger all, and the whole place seemed to run on some sort of law of the jungle that I still hadn't fully got my head around. London worked on respect, and relationships, and who was connected to who. Here it really was survival of the fittest, or of the least fucking half-dead anyway. I stood up and met their flinty stares.
"Wha's with the fuckin' rats then, ey?" he asked me.
"S'fuckin' weird," his mate said. "Fuckin' rats an' that. You eat them, Ratty?"
I had the two tied-off sacks dangling from my left hand, both squirming vigorously on account of rats who would much rather be elsewhere. I'd rather have been fucking elsewhere, to be perfectly honest about it. Pretty much anywhere elsewhere at that precise moment.
"I don't bother you, you don't bother me," I said.
That line of negotiation had always worked on the night creatures back in London, but then even night creatures were capable of simple reasoning. I wasn't sure this pair of rocket scientists were even up to that.
"Away you old cunt," the first ned said, and his hand came out of his tracksuit pocket with a Stanley knife in it. "Yer fuckin' weird."
I took in a breath, and felt the Burned Man rear up inside me. I'd been resisting it as hard as I could ever since I'd pitched up in this little corner of Hell, but right then I was too sick and too fucked off and simply too tired to put up with this shit any more. Karma be damned, if only for a few moments.
I let the Burned Man loose.
Sort them, I thought at it.
"Oh I'm fucking weird all right," I said. "I'm the weirdest old cunt you ever met."
I held the precious sacks of rats down by my side in my left hand and raised my right in front of my face. My grin widened, and I felt the Burned Man take over. My hand caught fire, flames whipping up into the air in front of my face.
"Jesus and Mary!" the second ned shouted, but that wasn't going to help him any.
Not against the Burned Man it wasn't, that was for fucking sure.
"Burn," I whispered.
The one in front of me screamed as the sleeve of his tracksuit caught fire. It went up like a torch, the cheap nylon blazing as he flailed his arms. The knife flew out of his hand and into the undergrowth. He ripped the tracksuit top off and hurled it away from him, screaming and cursing. His bare arm was burned raw and already starting to blister.
The Jesus and Mary shouter was already running away, fucking hard man that he was. I glared at his mewling friend, the one who lived in my block. I'd have some fucking respect around here if it killed me. Well not me, obviously, but I didn't care if I had to burn a few of these worthless little scumbags to get what I was owed. I didn't care if I had to burn all of them. I remembered other times, another plane, where I had ruled a million souls with a ruthless rod of fire. Talk to me like that? They had got off fucking lightly. I could have flayed the skin from their bodies with a look, drowned them in acid for a thousand years ...
I shuddered as I recognized the Burned Man's poisonous thoughts. That wasn't me, and I did care. I cared a great fucking deal, but the Burned Man definitely did not. Still, I had let it in, hadn't I? Deliberately, that time. Before, it had just shoved its way to the front of my head and taken over when it decided someone needed hurting. This was the first time I could remember actually inviting it. The first time I had deliberately wanted its power. That was a great way to arrest my slide down that slippery slope to Hell, wasn't it?
No Don, no it fucking isn't.
The ned fell to his knees in the undergrowth in front of me, cradling his burned arm and blubbering. The rats squirming in their sacks against my leg brought me back to myself.
"Go on, fuck off," I said. "And enough with the 'Ratty' shit. My name's Drake."
He nodded, speechless with shock and pain and sheer terror.
That's more like it, Drake, the Burned Man thought in the back of my head. You've got to show these arseholes who's boss.
Who was boss though, me or the Burned Man? I only wished I still knew.
After the ned dragged himself off to lick his wounds I rooted through the undergrowth until I eventually found some sage. I took it and the bagged rats back to my squat, where I dumped the lot on the floor and sat down on my greasy sleeping bag. I had maybe three hours to kill until my client arrived.
I looked at my works, and made myself look away. I wasn't twitching yet, but I knew I would be by the time he turned up. I didn't want to start getting sick while I was trying to work a spell, after all. I looked at the works again.
Have a fucking word with yourself, Don, I thought. I lay down and closed my eyes, wrapped in my coat against the cold. I fidgeted, coughed, fidgeted again. Of course now I had the bloody idea in my head I couldn't think of anything else. I was at absolute rock bottom at this point, in case you aren't quite getting that yet. This was about as miserable as the junkie life got. And yet I still wanted it. I didn't have any choice any more. Maybe just a little bit.
I sat up again and took my coat off. My arm was a little worse for wear, but most of the vein was still good. I swallowed, tried to work some spit around my dry mouth. Oh it was no fucking good was it? I was doing it.
I fixed up quickly, just a small hit, rationing what little I had left. I let the needle drop back onto the plate and loosened the rubber tube around my arm, already sinking into warm grey oblivion.
The memories came.
When I ran away from London, I went north. I still had money then, enough for a train to Glasgow and a hotel when I got there. Debbie was supposed to be in Glasgow, but I had no idea where. Debbie had been my girlfriend ever since we were in university together, all those years ago. Well, my very on-off girlfriend to be honest, but we had always been close. She had finally dumped me for good six months before then, after I had accidentally got her kidnapped and tortured by one of the Furies. A Fury I'd been shagging at the time, at that. Long story.
Excerpted from Damnation by Peter McLean. Copyright © 2017 Peter McLean. Excerpted by permission of Angry Robot.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.