“Because I’m an inbetweener—and the only one anyone knows of at that—the dead turn to me when something is askew between them and the living. Usually, it’s something mundane like a suicide gone wrong or someone revived that shouldn’ta been.”
Carlos Delacruz is one of the New York Council of the Dead’s most unusual agents—an inbetweener, partially resurrected from a death he barely recalls suffering, after a life that’s missing from his memory. He thinks he is one of a kind—until he encounters other entities walking the fine line between life and death.
One inbetweener is a sorcerer. He’s summoned a horde of implike ngks capable of eliminating spirits, and they’re spreading through the city like a plague. They’ve already taken out some of NYCOD’s finest, leaving Carlos desperate to stop their master before he opens up the entrada to the Underworld—which would destroy the balance between the living and the dead.
But in uncovering this man’s identity, Carlos confronts the truth of his own life—and death.…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
To live in the Borderlands means
the mill with the razor white teeth wants to shred off
your olive-red skin, crush out the kernel, your heart
pound you pinch you roll you out
smelling like white bread but dead;
To survive the Borderlands
you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads.
“To live in the Borderlands means you”
It’s just past eleven p.m. on December thirty-first—that dizzy in-between time when we’re not quite here but not yet there—and hip, young white kids crowd the trendy streets of Park Slope, Brooklyn. Their pockmarked faces flash a theatrical array of expressions, everything from regret to ecstasy to total abandon, but I’m not fooled: they’re bored out of their minds. I can tell because I’m dead—well, partially dead anyway. When you straddle a fine line like the one between life and death, let’s just say you can tell certain things about people.
I dip into a brightly lit tobacco store for some Malagueñas and a pocket-sized rum. The rum goes into my flask and one of the Malagueñas goes in my mouth. I light it, walk back out to the street, and weave through the crowds. When I move quickly, no one notices my strange gait or the long wooden cane I use to favor my right leg. I’ve gotten the flow down so smooth I almost glide along toward the milky darkness of Prospect Park. There’s too much information here in the streets—each passing body gives up a whole symphony of smells and memories and genetics. It can help pass the time if you’re bored, but tonight, I’m far from bored.
Tonight I am hunting.
Music wafts out of a bar across the street—a kind of watery blues that evokes dentists’ waiting rooms. The hipsters roam up and down the block in packs, playing out a whole mess of different daytime-drama plotlines. There’s a few black and brown folks around, but they’re mostly staying out of the way. And me? I’m a grayish off-brown—a neither-here-nor-there color that matches my condition. It would be a jarring skin tone to notice, but I tend to just blend in. That’s fine with me. Whatever it is that’s been causing all this static is out there tonight. I’m sure of it. The more I can disappear, the more chance I have of catching them.
* * *
It’s been two weeks now. Two weeks of a vague and irritating twinge crawling up my spine every time I get near the crest of Flatbush Avenue. I’ve been walking circles around that area like an idiot, trying to sniff out the source. Stood for hours beneath the big archway with its soldiers’ frozen battle cries and elaborate stonework; closed my eyes and just listened, feeling all the damn spiritual vibrations ricochet across Brooklyn. Major throughways shoot off toward Flatbush and into Crown Heights, but I narrowed it down to some indedamnterminate spot in the Slope.
When I took it to my icy superiors at the New York Council of the Dead, they nodded their old fully dead heads and turned silently in on themselves to conference. A few hours later they called me back in. Because I’m an inbetweener, and the only one anyone knows of at that, the dead turn to me when something is askew between them and the living. Usually, it’s some mundane shit—cleanup work. But every once in a while it gets really hairy, and that’s when I go hunting. These are the times when I forget that I was ever even dead. Whatever shadow of life or humanity pertains to me—I know God put me on this fine planet to hunt.
Plus I’m good at it.
But the Council was all kinds of vague about this one. No explanation, just a photo of a man slid across the table with icy fingers. We believe this is the source, Carlos. His name is Trevor Brass. Do your thing.
An icy pause. Eliminate him.
And me: “Care to elucidate further?”
And them: Nope.
And what can really be said to that? They’re dead. They don’t have to elucidate shit. I don’t mind though. Makes things more interesting.
Oh, and protect the entrada at all costs.
See, the dead are good for coming up with some last-minute oh-and-by-the-way type shit. Protect the entrada. An entrada is an entrance to the Underworld. There’s only a couple scattered around the city, and they’re supposed to be well guarded by a team of fully dead COD soulcatchers, impenetrable and all that, but really, it happens. Soulcatchers have other things to do, turns out, than stand around flickering doors to Hell. Protocols tighten and then slack again. The particular entrada they’re referring to is in a shady grove in the middle of Prospect Park, not at all far from all this mess. It’s not hard to imagine that whatever this grinning fellow in the picture is up to has something to do with breaching through. How they expect me to simultaneously track the dude down and keep him from getting to the entrada is another question, but that’s not their concern. The Council hands out whatever garbled-up mandate they’ve regurgitated from their eyes in the field, and it’s on me to sort through the chaos.
So I nodded, pocketed the picture, and walked out the door.
* * *
I swig on my flask and head for the park. I want to check on the entrada, and that swath of urban wilderness is the only place I can clear my head. I’d forgotten that this tremendous pockmarked flock of New Year’s revelers would be here, jamming up all my otherworldly insights. A ponytail guy plows through the crowd to find somewhere to puke his guts out; I swerve out of the way just in time. He’s wearing too much aftershave and looks like he spent three hours trying to make his hair look that carelessly tussled.
Then I see my mark. He’s standing in the middle of all that hootenanny, laughing his ass off. He’s caramel-colored but still somehow pale gray like an overcast day. He’s got long, perfectly kept locks reaching all the way down his back and a goatee so carefully trimmed it might be painted on. His big frame rocks with laughter. Unquestionably, the cat is dealing with some supernatural . . . issues. Layers of grief, anxiety, and fanaticism swirl around him like ripples in a pond; they’re peppered with a distinct aroma of, what’s that? Ah, yes: guilt. And yet he’s chuckling madly.
That’s when it hits me: the guy’s not dead. Here I was, assuming that because the NYCOD brought me in, I’d automatically have another faded shroud on my hands, some errant phantom trying to make it back or otherwise disturb the delicate balance of life and death. But this fellow isn’t faded or translucent. He’s breathing. His memories aren’t closed books the way dead memories are. And yet, by the look of things, he’s not fully alive either. I squint through the crowd at him, not even trying to conceal my intentions anymore.
He is like me.
Another inbetweener—and not just one of these half-formed, not-quite-here purgatorious mo’fos: Trevor is full-fledged flesh and blood alive and dead at the same time, both and neither.
I duck into the outdoor entrance area of another bar. The bouncer shoots me a look that says why the fuck you movin’ so fast, cripple? I ignore it, tug on the Malagueña, and observe my prey. The smoke eases me into the excitement of the hunt. He is feisty, this one. I narrow my eyes. Just like the living, this man’s head is full of plans—a map that keeps drawing and redrawing itself, a checklist, an incomplete letter. There’s something else too: a solid chunk of his subconscious attention lingers on a scrap of thick paper in his pocket, probably some piece of whatever diabolical plot he’s enmeshed in. He has all the makings of someone up to no good, and yet I can’t help but feel drawn to this laughing wraith. For all his mysterious schemes and whatever chaos he’s trying to let loose on my city, he’s having a good time, and after all, it is New Year’s Eve.
Anyway, I’ve never met anybody like me before, so instead of just ending him right then and there, I walk up and offer the dude one of my Malagueñas. Just like that. The very idea of doing this is so ridiculous that it shudders through me like the tickle of an invisible hand, and pretty soon we’re both standing there smoking away and laughing like idiots.
We’re definitely in the same curious predicament, but unlike me, Trevor’s not at all concerned with blending in. In fact, he’s determined to stand out. “Whaddup, douche bags and douche baguettes?” he hollers at the crowd. I’m mortified and fascinated at the same time. A few passing revelers chuckle, but most ignore him. A blond lady rolls her eyes as if she’s being hit on for like the four hundredth time tonight. “Why so serious?” Trevor yells into the sky. I found the one other being like me in the universe and he is a total jackass.
Trevor turns to me, his face suddenly sharp, and says: “It’s time. Let’s go.” His glare is penetrating and reveals nothing. A total blank.
We move quickly, with purpose. He either already knows I’m extraordinarily agile, or he didn’t even notice the cane. I’m dodging a hodgepodge of hipsters and homeless rich kids, keeping my eyes on Trevor’s paisley cap bobbing up ahead. He’s still laughing and calling people douche bags, and I have no idea whether I’m giving chase or being led into a trap. Or both.
“What’s your name, man?” I slur, playing up the rum on my breath.
He eyes me and then says, “Trevor.”
“Carlos,” I say, and I realize with a start that he’s probably reading right through my every move just like I’m trying to read through each of his. The shock of this makes me feel momentarily naked; I quickly gather myself and cobble back the wall of deceit.
I have never dealt with someone like me before.
“Why so serious?” Trevor says again, this time at me. He’s still laughing.
“Not at all,” I say. Then I swig from my flask and he swigs from his.
He’s meeting someone. The realization comes clear like a whisper inside my head, and I can’t help but wonder if the same voice is murmuring he’s onto you in his.
We break from the crowd, cut a sharp right on Third Street, and end up beneath an ancient willow tree leaning out of Prospect Park. The wide avenue is deserted except for a few loping stragglers from the party on Seventh. It’s a cool night. The light rain isn’t falling so much as hovering in the air around us in a teasing little cumulus.
“This is the year, people!” Trevor yells at no one in particular. “The time she has come! People, get ready!” He kicks an empty beer bottle into a nearby bush, upsetting a family of night birds. I should just kill him now; that static filling the air hints at untold horrors. Also, I have no idea how hard he’ll be to take down. I don’t even know if I can fully die again. I’m bracing myself to make my move when a few figures emerge from the shadowy park.
“That you, broham?” one of them calls out as they get close. Broham? Is that Trevor’s real name? I try to make myself as unnoticeable as possible, but we’re a party of two, and we’re both inbetweeners. “Who’s the dude, man? Thought this was a secret and shit.”
“It’s cool, Brad,” says Trevor or Broham, or whoever my new friend/prey is. “He’s with me.”
No one’s ever said that about me. I’m flattered and repulsed at the same time.
Brad is tall and thick. His blond hair is close cropped in a military buzz cut. Of the crew behind him, three are basically Brad clones with different color hair, one is an Asian Brad, and another little guy is definitely Indian/Pakistani or maybe Puerto Rican. Or half-black. Whatever he is, he gets randomly searched every time he’s within twenty feet of an airport. Finally, there’s a hipster—the cats are everywhere—looking extraordinarily out of place and awkward.
“Okay, bros, let’s do this thing,” Brad says. Shady supernatural shenanigans in the Slope and it involves a bunch of frat boys? Curiouser and curiouser.
We make our way along the edge of the park. One of the Brads falls into place beside me. “Michael,” he says, extending an awkward hand as I amble along.
“Carlos,” I say. I nod, but don’t touch his hand. People tend to notice how chilly and dry my skin is. And I tend to pick up way too much information about folks when we touch. Sometimes it’s better not to know.
Michael’s forced smile fades. “Are you going to, you know, help show us, uh, the other side?”
“Whose big idea was this, Michael?”
“Well, David, really.” Michael nods toward the skinny hipster. “He gathered us together late one night at his house. He’s Brad’s homey. I don’t really know him that well. Anyway, he said he had a big opportunity, a chance for us to see things no one else had seen. But only if we could be trusted, right?”
“Said he’d met this dude—no name or nothing, just this dude—and that he was going to take us to, you know, the other side.”
I make an ambivalent half grunt and Michael frowns, like maybe he revealed too much. He quickens his pace to catch up with the others. Darkened Victorians peek out from behind swaying trees across the street.
When we reach the wide-open roundabout at the entrance to Prospect Park, flickers of nervousness flare up from Trevor. Whatever it is he has planned, we’re getting dangerously close to it. I wonder if these frat boys are unknowingly lining up to be the main course of some ritual sacrifice. Trevor seems just erratic and volatile enough to try to pull off such a stunt. But then, a few flatheads and a hipster getting glazed wouldn’t warrant so much concern from the Council of the Dead—and they certainly wouldn’t waste my time with it. Trevor checks his watch and then looks into the misty night. It’s eight minutes to midnight. I try to tune in to the gathering storm of excitement that’s about to explode all over the city, but it’s just a faint glimmer to me.
We enter the park, move quickly through the fresh-smelling darkness. The Brads and David fall into a nervous silence. Trevor is a fortress—he gives up nothing to me, so I let my thoughts chase the ridiculous minidramas and power plays between our companions. We’re moving toward the entrada, and of course, the timing is perfect: entradas are extra accessible to the non-dead at midnight, and this midnight in particular the air would be even more charged with culminating spiritual energy. The majority of Brooklyn’s ancestral souls are out and about tonight, enjoying their own morbid festivities. You can almost taste the bursting molecules in the air.
As if to confirm my suspicions, we turn off the main road and duck down a narrow path through the trees. But what would an inbetweener be doing with a bunch of college kids at an entrance to the Underworld? This is only the beginning, the voice that knows things whispers. You who are neither here nor there keep the secrets of both worlds. And secrets are a valuable commodity. My man has fashioned himself into a traitorous tour guide of the afterlife. I close my eyes and imagine the Land of the Dead overrun by oversized, pasty tourists, thousands of bubbly Brads and Bradettes, snapping pictures and sipping frappuccino-whatevers.
I really shoulda taken him when it was simple. Now we’ve arrived; the entrada is a gaping void beneath drooping tree branches. It’s not black; it’s just emptiness. The air is crisp with new rain and a murmuring breeze. If Trevor touches that void, it’s game over—he’ll disappear into a relentless, hazy maze of wandering souls. David and the frat boys would be shit outta luck, their magical romp through the Underworld canceled, but Trevor would be safe from my expert problem-solving hands.
I push my way up through the crowd of Brads. With about ten feet to go before the entrada, Trevor makes a break for it. My elbows shoot out in either direction, crack into meaty midsections, splinter ribs. With a little added encouragement from my shoulders, the home team collapses to either side of me, and I sprint forward in a ferocious, lopsided lunge, unsheathing the blade from my cane as I go. It leaves my hand like a bullet. For a second, all anyone hears is that terrible whiz of steel cutting through air, and then the even more terrible renting of flesh. That sound means I win, but for once it doesn’t feel so good to win. Trevor collapses heavily, an arm’s length from the entrada.
Without breaking stride, I pull my blade from Trevor’s flesh and launch back toward the college boys, cutting the air and hollering gibberish at the top of my lungs. They leave in a hurry, limping and carrying one another along like the good guys in war movies. I return to Trevor, who’s bleeding out quickly.
If he can die, I can die.
It’s a sobering thought. I have so many questions I don’t even know where to begin, and his life force is fading fast. He makes like he’s about to speak but just gurgles. All of his attention, all of his waning energy, is focused back on that little scrap of something in his pocket, but his eyes stare right into mine.
He knows I can read him. He’s pointing it out to me.
I gingerly reach into his pocket and retrieve what turns out to be a photograph of a girl.
I can’t remember the last time I said this. Maybe I’ve never said it. But this chick is fine as hell. Not just fine though—there’s something about her gaze, the way she holds her chin, the shadow of her collarbone, that makes me want to find her and tell her everything, everything. It’s just a silly snapshot. Her smile is genuine but grudging, like whoever took the picture insisted she do it. Her head’s cocked just a little to the side, and something in her eyes just says, I get it, Carlos. C’mere and talk to me and then let’s make love. Looks like she’s in a park, maybe even this one; a few trees are scattered in the scenery behind her.
“Sister,” Trevor gurgles, and I quickly wipe the hungry glow off my face. “She is . . . caught up in this too . . .” When he says this, his head jerks toward the shimmering emptiness beside us.
“This what, man? What is this?”
“Closing the gap,” Trevor whispers. “The living and the dead . . . don’t have to be so far apart. Like . . .” He takes a deep, death-rattle breath.
I manage to hide my impatience for about three seconds. “Like what?”
“. . . like us. You and me and . . .” Another excruciating pause. “Sasha.”
The hand holding the picture feels like it’s on fire. I raise it up to his face. “Sasha,” I say, failing to disguise the hope in my voice. “She’s like us? She’s in between?”
I almost break into a dance when Trevor nods his head. Suddenly, the park seems very luminous and beautiful at this hour. The night birds are singing, and somewhere, a few blocks away, Park Slope rocks to the New Year’s revelry of two thousand wealthy white kids.
“Please,” Trevor is saying when I return from my reverie. “Find Sasha. Keep her safe . . .” Done. No problem. How else can I help you today, sir? “From the Council.”
“Uh . . .” I say, trying to slow my thoughts. “City Council?” Did you know it’s possible to really irritate a dying person? Even an already mostly dead dying person. I don’t recommend it though. Trevor looks like he might use the last of his life force to make a grab for my cane-blade and cut some sense into me. “Right, right,” I say quickly. “The Council of the Dead.” He nods. “New York City chapter.” My bosses. Surely he must know this. But whatever Trevor does or doesn’t know quickly becomes a nonissue. He gurgles again, flinches, and then relaxes as death completes its finishing touches.
At least he won’t have far to travel.
* * *
After gently placing Trevor’s body into the entrada, I wander aimlessly around the park and work my way through the whole pack of Malagueñas and all of my rum. There’s too many thoughts in my head right now. If I venture out into the city, it’ll mean instant input overload. The living and the dead don’t have to be so far apart, Trevor had said. Why are folks always so cryptic right before they croak?
There’s an us.
All I’ve ever known of the afterlife has been the rigid bureaucracy of the Council, and at first that had been relief from the cold disregard of the living. And then I just made friends with being the lone intermediary between the two, but now . . . When the Council’s icy fingers slide the photo of Sasha’s wry smile and sleepy eyes across the table, I will nod my head like I always do. Then I will find her. I will honor the dying wish of her brother, whom I murdered, and protect her from myself.
And then I will ask her out.
Downtown Brooklyn in the middle of the day. No room for ghosts, too many damn living people clogging up all the inroads and walkabouts. There’s rowdy teenagers, little old ladies, cops, businesspeople. At the feet of the skyscrapers, old men beg for spare change and young dudes in baggy pants pass out party flyers. Other cats are hocking their goods, everything from Bibles to porn to wooden giraffes to children’s books.
I stand perfectly still and let the whole teeming masterpiece spin around me. I’m not sure why I’m here. The Council sent me. Sometimes they fuck up, and I’m pretty sure this is one of those times. Go downtown. Fine. They set me up in an apartment; they keep me doing what I do. I’ll go downtown, then. And I’ll pick a spot and be the frozen center of a messy human galaxy for an hour or two. Maybe some dead folks will show up. I don’t care.
The truth is, since New Year’s, there has been a growing murmur of discontent in the back of my mind. Used to be I could just say that I don’t care, and it’d be truly true. Now I wonder. The feeling of Trevor’s life slipping out of him, through my fingertips, it haunts me. It’s not that I particularly cared for the guy; he was definitely about to unleash some nasty havoc. But he had a whole life I never knew about and then a half-life after that. We had something in common, and I’ve never been able to say that about another person. We could’ve, I don’t know, compared notes. Been . . . friends maybe, if he’d have gone a different route. Yes, he was just some jackass to me, a mark, and still, somehow, I felt like it was my own life slipping away along with his.
“Carlos.” Father Reginald’s gravelly voice breaks me out of my reverie and I’m glad for it.
“How are you, Padre?”
“Can’t complain. Another beautiful day.” Father Reginald has a bushy beard covering most of his dark brown face. He looks grumpy as fuck, eyes and brow always gnarled up into some unaccounted-for grimace, but when he opens his mouth, it’s always some “’nother beautiful day” type glory. They say he passed some tough years as a political prisoner in the Caribbean, but he never speaks of it. “People-watching?”
“Something like that.”
Father Reginald nods knowingly. “Back to it, then, young fellow. I won’t hold you up.”
“Agent Delacruz!” some idiot ghost voice crackles through my head. The dead and their damn telepathy. “Report immediately to Council Headquarters.”
Father Reginald regards my sudden flinching with some concern and then just smiles. “Take care of yourself, Carlos.”
I nod and doff my cap at the priest. “Enjoy your afternoon, Padre.”
* * *
I wonder briefly if I’m in some kind of trouble, and then I remember that I don’t give a fuck. There’s a bus up Fourth Avenue that would get me there quicker, but I’m irritated these dipshits had me downtown for no apparent reason.
I stop for coffee on the way, chat with some old guys sitting out on a stoop. Another cold front’s moving in from up north. What else? Old Reggie’s out of prison again, but probably just for a week or two, since he’s already back to his old ways. Life tumbles onward, and eventually, when I feel I’ve wasted enough time to legitimately vex my superiors, so do I.
The Council of the Dead occupies an abandoned warehouse nestled between a sweatshop and a strip club on one of the forgotten backstreets of Sunset Park. There’s a metal fire exit so desecrated by graffiti and trash you’d never notice it, but it’s unlocked for us non–fully dead types. Well, for me. Inside, it’s your traditional eerie empty warehouse: all rusted-out industrial skeletons and corroded pipes. Here there’s an overturned wheelie chair, there a sea of shattered glass. A corner stairwell winds up to a catwalk that disappears in shadows. An awful mist hangs over everything; if you didn’t know better, you’d assume it was the lingering fallout of some chemical disaster, but really it’s just spirit shit.
They barely notice me when I walk in, all these trembling shrouds. They just go about their business. I head up the metal stairwell, my clanking boots echoing into the vast hall, work my way along a filthy, cobwebbed corridor to an empty room. It must’ve been the office of some middle-management troll at one time; there’s a huge window overlooking the main floor and a corroded file cabinet.
Speaking of middle-management trolls: Bartholomew Arsten. He appears in the doorway, a tall, translucent shroud. His shimmering, sallow face contorts with uncertainty. “You’re here.”
“You summoned me.”
“I did . . .” He puzzles for a few seconds. “I did!”
“We have a message for you.”
“Riley wants you to meet him at the Burgundy.”
“Riley.” He says it like I’m the incompetent one. “Wants.”
“I heard what you said. I’m trying to figure out why you sent me a message dragging my ass across town to tell me a message to go back across town.”
“Oh, it’s a new protocol. We can’t give locations for meeting points over telepathy.”
“But you did that when you asked me to come here.”
“Except for here.”
“Bart, bruh, you know you full of shit, right?”
Bartholomew circles in the doorway and begins fading into the haze of shadows.
“You’d better go, Agent. The message was from two hours ago, so you’re already late, technically.”
Welp,” Riley says, “that’s basically what I told the dude.” He scrunches up his face real meanlike. “‘No, you back the fuck up.’ Then I sliced him.” He and Dro bust out into unchecked chuckles. Of course, it’s easy for them to laugh with reckless abandon: they’re just glimmering shadows to me and silent invisibilities to the drunks all around us. I have to be a little more conservative with my ruckus. As it is, the drunks see me speaking under my breath to empty seats on either side, occasionally smiling, swearing, or grunting. Anyway, we’re in the Burgundy Bar—a joint that is full of enough fuckups and generally blitzed-out patrons that one weirdo talking to himself at the bar is not really a big deal.
Sasha’s all-knowing smirk simmers across my mind for the eighty thousandth time today. I’m only barely here at all, just nodding, grinning, looking away.
“Carlos,” Riley says. He’s thick and translucent, bald headed and impeccably dressed, even in death. Riley and I share the common trait of having died so violently it shredded any memory of our lives, and in that we are brothers. When we’re bored, we make up highly unlikely stories about what may have been. “First you show up later than your usual Puerto Rican late, and now you all sulky. Kay tay pasa, hombre?” I know he’s emphasizing that silent h just to annoy me, so I ignore it. Besides, all his stories end with Then I sliced him.
I shrug. “Nada, man. Blame the Council. What we got for today?”
Riley leans over his Jameson and takes a sip. It looks stupid if you’re not used to it—grown-ass man dipping into his drink like one of those damn plastic birds—but even the don’t-give-a-fuck clientele at Burgundy would probably startle at a bunch of floating glasses. “Today’s adventure, my friends, is a very special one.”
Riley’s was the first face I saw when I came back around. He was standing over me, grinning that grin of his, looking all proud of himself like he was the one who brought me back. He wasn’t, but still, he found me, named me, brought me into the complicated fold of the Council, and has looked out for me ever since, in his own odd way.
Dro groans. “You say that every night, man.” Dro doesn’t drink. He’s tall and remarkably well built for a dead guy. We suspect he’s Filipino, but he keeps insisting on being Brazilian. Who can tell? Who cares even? Riley gets on him about it occasionally, but as far as I’m concerned, if Dro wants to be Brazilian, that’s his business. Either way, the three of us are about as much color as the Council will put up with, apparently.
“I do say that a lot,” Riley admits. “And I always lead you on a spectacular adventure.”
“Sometimes,” Dro says. “Sometimes no.”
Riley turns to me suddenly. “Hey, how’d the business with the inbetweener go on New Year’s?”
My pulse quickens to a slow-ass drag. I had just managed to push the whole thing out of my damn mind and then Riley went ahead and busted it back in. “Fine,” I say. “Why?”
“I just heard it was quite a scenario: he was tryna bring a group of college kids into an entrada or something, no?”
“Damn,” Dro says. “And he was . . . like you?”
I make a grunty-affirmative noise. When they send me after a normal ol’ fully dead ghost, it’s usually to toss their translucent asses back into Hell or, when they’re really acting out, slice ’em to the Deeper Death. That means they’re gone-for-good gone, not just kinda-sorta gone. It takes some getting used to, yeah, but you figure, hey—they were already dead once. Not everyone comes back even as a spook, so they had got that second chance and jacked it up by playing the fool. The final good-bye ain’t that big a deal in that sense. But this one . . . this strange, gray-like-me man with his wild schemes and last-gasp poetics . . . his death hasn’t left me since New Year’s.
Neither has his sister’s perfect smile.
Anyway, should be pretty clear I don’t want to talk about it, but my friends don’t take well to subtle clues.
“Was that weird?” Riley says. “You clipped him?”
“No and yes.” I really don’t want to talk about this. I’m not even sure why, but the whole mention of it makes me feel like shriveling up inside this long trench coat and being gone.
Finally, Riley shrugs and rolls his eyes. “Anyway, as it so happens: today’s adventure, brought to you by the illustrious Council of the Dead, involves the very house and home in which Carlos and I first became acquainted.”
“She’s all right.” Riley reads the concern etched ’cross my face. “But a house a few doors down from her has an ngk.”
I blink at him. “A what?”
“An ngk.” It’s almost guttural, the way he says it. Like he’s trying to speak through a mouth gag and then closing it off with a soft click.
“The fuck’s an ngk? How do you even spell that?”
Riley nods at Dro, who’s obviously been preparing for this very moment. “An ngk, Carlos, spelled n-g-k, is a small, rarely seen implike creature that is thought to be capable of vast unknown feats of sorcery and mischief. They tend to show up directly before tragedies of immense proportions, but it’s still up for debate whether this is because of their ability to see the future or if they are the actual cause of the disaster.”
“Yeah, they suck,” confirms Riley. “It’s very unusual that one’d show up at all, actually. They were thought to be extinct for a while, but have made sporadic appearances throughout the twentieth century. I dunno. I ain’t never messed with one myself, but you hear weird stories.”
“Let’s go have a look for ourselves, shall we?”
Sasha’s smile stays on its broken-record rotation through my mind. A little challenge may be just what I need, even if it’s in the form of some tiny unpronounceable freak from the other side.
* * *
It’s been three years, but walking down this block always reminds me of that slow crawl back to life. It was days and days I lay there, listening to the cycles of street life sway by outside the window. The walls became my friends, if nothing else for the fact that they were perfectly consistent. Everything was gone. I didn’t even have a name, so being able to wake up to the same sun-bleached floral pattern became a small comfort in those first hazy days. I would slide from another sickly coma, see that faded ornateness and smile softly. Still there. Then the sounds of the street would find me: cars and buses grumbling past, the odd clicks and clanks of the city, yes, but most of all, the voices. The voices of life-living people, going about the business of being alive, all those tiny eccentricities, bothersome little errands, gossip on the corner, transactions, rebukes, come-ons. It was music to me, an endless chugalug of ambient humanity seeping through my pores as I healed.
When I finally got it together enough to make it outside, I felt like I already knew all the people on the block. I had learned to distinguish between the voices of my neighbors, imagined each one as a thread that’d reach up into the night sky and wrap around the other threads, their small dramas and schedules coalescing into a vast, chaotic quilt. And then I could put faces to the voices. I sat on that stoop for hours marveling at it all, surely appearing like some fallen-off crackhead, but content nonetheless. People nodded as they passed, and eventually nods turned to “all rights,” which became small conversations, and then my voice mingled in the chorus. Another thread.
It’s almost February, and a brisk wind shushes through the trees, flaps my coat around, whips a frenzy of dead leaves and plastic bags into the air. The kids are getting home from school, all puffy jackets, colorful hats, and cartoon-character book bags. Winter has driven most of the stoop sitters inside, and once the little ones tuck themselves away in their respective houses, things look kind of bleak, quite frankly.
Or maybe it’s the ngk.
“Sweet, sweet memories?” Riley’s beside me; his translucent body flaps gently in the wind like some luminous laundry.
“I suppose. Anything seem off to you? I mean it’s cold, but still, there’s usually more people out, no?”
“I think it’s the ngk,” Dro says. It annoys me that he sounds so sure of it, but I suppose he’s already done his homework on this stuff.
“Shall we?” Riley makes an exaggerated after-you gesture toward the block that I used to haunt.
It’s a pretty unremarkable building really, one more four-story row house on Franklin Avenue just south of Atlantic, a few doors down from Mama Esther’s. There’s a bodega, a liquor store, and a tiny church on the block. Atlantic is all auto shops and gas stations, traffic hurrying off to East New York and Queens. Farther south from where we stand, Franklin Avenue starts getting trendy: a brand-new sushi restaurant and some chic, nondescript boutiquey spots.
We walk in the front door, and immediately I know something’s wrong. Can feel it through my body like a dirty sheet has been thrown over my heart. I just . . . don’t even want to move. Also, there’s a noise. It’s barely noticeable, just an endless, irritating buzz and the sound of . . . I squint as if it will help me hear—little grunting gasps punctuated with . . . laughter.
I don’t like this at all.
The old floorboards creak under my boots. Every step feels like a chore. All I want is for that buzzing to cease and that creepy little panting laughter to never trouble me again. I can’t even tell you why it’s so disturbing. Some otherworldly ngk magic, surely, that cuts right to the core of a man; my very soul is irritated.
It gets worse when I round the corner. The big old room, gray in the late-afternoon shadows, is completely empty except for a tiny figure in the corner. I don’t want to get any closer, but I know I have to if I’m going to end this plague of hideousness. The buzzing, the grunting, the chuckle—it’s all coming from this sinister little thing, this ngk. It only reaches up to just above my ankle. Pale, greenish skin stretches in wrinkly folds across its bony little body. That face—an alarming grin reaches from one side of its head to the other. The frail lips are parted slightly, and its wormy tongue reaches out between tiny, uneven teeth. And, perhaps most unnerving of all, the ngk is riding what appears to be an exercise bike of some kind. It just cycles and cycles and cycles and pants and chuckles and grunts, not even registering that a tall half-dead Puerto Rican has entered the room.
It irks me that the ngk doesn’t look up. I want to scream at it, but what good would it do? Riley and Dro float up beside me, and I don’t have to look at them to know they’re experiencing the same shriveling discomfort that I am. They’re both diminished, their iridescence reduced to a feeble, blinking glow.
“The fuck?” I say. The words feel like they’re ricocheting through an echo chamber in my head.
“The ngk,” Dro announces unnecessarily.
“Esther must be miserable with this thing nearby,” I say. Each time I open my mouth is a new dimension of hangover. I decide to save nonurgent conversation till the ngk is safely disposed of. “How ’bout I just cut its head off and then we leave?”
“Can’t,” Riley says.
“You can’t kill an ngk,” Dro informs me through gritted ghost teeth.
“Why . . . the fuck . . . not?”
Dro shakes his head. “No one knows.”
That’s not good enough. My hand’s on my blade and it’s taking all I got not to free it from its cane covering and make a quick end to this feverish little bastard. I just want it to stop. “What are we doing here, then?”
“I needed you guys to see it,” Riley says, more somber than usual. “I don’t have an answer for how to get rid of it, but Esther’s saved all our asses in one way or another, and we owe it to her.” The thought of Riley needing his ass saved startles me; I’ve never even seen him ruffled.
Then a horrible shrieking sound blasts through everything else. I cover my ears, but it’s useless. The shit’s tearing me up from the inside out.
“What the hell?”
“That’s the ngk call,” Dro says. We’re all backing quickly toward the door. “It’s lethal as fuck.”
In seconds we’re out on the street, panting.
“All right,” Riley says. “I wanna check in with Mama Esther.”
* * *
The feeling follows us down the block, even lingers as a dull whisper while we trudge up the creaking steps at Mama Esther’s. Then we enter the library, the only room in the entire house with any furniture, and everything’s all right again. There aren’t even shelves, just stacks and stacks of books from floor to ceiling. You’d think it’d be a chaotic mess, all packed in there like that, but somehow there’s a harmony to it; the books seem almost suspended in midair. They’re everywhere, and the room is wide and tall enough that it doesn’t feel cluttered. If I don’t clean my little spot in more than a week, it starts to close in on me, so how Esther keeps this utterly full room spacious is beyond me. Some ghost shit, I suppose. Either way, it’s oddly comforting.
Esther’s floating in her usual spot right in the center of the room. That’s where her head is anyway. Beneath that great girthy smile, her wide body stretches out into invisibility in a way that lets you know she’s got the whole house tucked within those fat ghostly folds. “Boys.” She nods at us; the warmth of that smile is a sunbath after the grimness of the ngk.
* * *
Mama Esther was the second face I saw after I woke up.
Excerpted from "Half-Resurrection Blues"
Copyright © 2015 Daniel José Older.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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.
What People are Saying About This
“A damn good read. All the best dark urban fantasies are about matters of life and death. Half-Resurrection Blues takes that to the limit. A hard-core, hard-driving fantasy, following the adventures of a most singular man who is both dead and alive and tasked with solving the problems of the dead and the living and everything in between. Except, of course, nothing is ever that simple. Daniel José Older takes aim at a whole bunch of familiar targets, and hits them hard in new and interesting ways.”—New York Times bestselling author Simon R. Green
“Older’s spectral noir is as real as fresh blood and as hard as its New York streets. A Lou Reed song sung with a knife to your throat.”—New York Times bestselling author Richard Kadrey
“Half-Resurrection Blues is so many things at once: a mystery, a suspense, a supernatural thriller. The world Older builds is familiar and alien, and it's so vividly imagined and rendered that the reader believes the contradictions, embraces them, loves this world of ghosts, demons, magic workers, and half-alive men and women. This is a fantastic beginning to what will surely be a fantastic series.”— National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward
“Daniel Jose-Older is here to save your soul. But he might just terrorize it first. Half-Resurrection Blues is the first novel of a fabulous talent, one who mixes the spectral and the intellectual with skill. This book is smart and gripping, funny and insightful. It kicks in the door waving the literary .44. Be warned, this man is not playing.”—Victor LaValle, author of The Devil in Silver
“In Half-Resurrection Blues, Older has created Noir for the Now: equal parts bracing, poignant, compassionate, and eerie. A swinging blues indeed.”—Nalo Hopkinson, Nebula Award–winning author of Sister Mine