Laytham Ballard once protected humanity as part of the Nightwise, a secret order of modern-day mages dedicating to holding hellish supernatural forces at bay, but that was before a string of sadistic ritual murders shook everything he believed inand sent him down a much darker path. One that has already cost him most of his soul, as well as everything he once held dear.
Now a powerful faerie mob boss has hired Ballard to find his lost-lost daughter, who went missing several years ago. The long-cold trail leads him across the globe, from the luxurious playgrounds of the rich and famous to the seedy occult underbelly of Los Angeles, where creatures of myth and legend mingle with street gangs and sex clubs, and where Ballard finds his own guilty past waiting for him around every shadowy corner. To find Caern Ankou, he will have to confront old enemies, former friends and allies, and a grisly cold case that has haunted him for years.
But is Caern still alive? And, perhaps more importantly, does she even want to be found?
About the Author
R. S. BELCHER is the award-winning author of Nightwise, The Brotherhood of the Wheel, The Six-Gun Tarot, The Shotgun Arcana, and The Queen of Swords. He lives in Salem, Virginia.
Read an Excerpt
I watched the playground on the other side of the high, chain-link fence, trying to figure out which of the elementary school children had the gun. The kids were doing like kids do, running around, chasing each other in circles, laughing, screaming. A few climbed on the monkey bars, others jockeyed to get a turn on the swings or the slide; a few played hopscotch. I couldn't recall ever being that young, happy, or clueless. I hoped to hell I could keep them that way. "Hoped to hell," I'm a fucking riot. The sun was beating down on me, but no one had noticed I didn't cast a shadow on the sidewalk. I had hocked it a while back.
I was getting the stink-eye from the circle of teachers near the double doors that led into the school, probably into the school cafeteria if it was anything like my old alma mater, Welch Elementary, back in West Virginia.
The teachers' worried frowns as I stood at the fence, studying the children at play, insulted me. I had tried so hard to blend in. Jeans, steel-toed work boots, a maroon-and-black paisley button-down with the sleeves up and the tails out. An old army medic satchel hung over one shoulder as my "murse." My long black hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail. I was goddamned eye candy. Shit, I even left the Aqualung trench coat at home. It was too damned hot for it anyway. Late spring in Texas is kinda like autumn on the surface of the sun.
I saw one of the teachers raise a blocky walkie-talkie to her lips and speak into it as she bored death rays into me with her baby browns. I smiled my most sincere smile — Aw, shucks, I'm jist a good ol'boy, standing here, minding my own beeswax. I mean no harm to y'all's planet — and lit up an American Spirit. I needed to find the little darling quick, because I was sure I was about to get a visit from the school's cop, and I didn't have time to try to convince Officer Friendly I wasn't a perv or a psycho.
I tuned out the heat, the teachers' resting bitch faces, and the sounds of traffic behind me. I did catch a quick burst of a car's radio through a rolled-down window blasting "Nasty Freestyle" by T-Wayne, then I pushed that away too. I focused on the tingling pressure up and down my spinal column, the bone road to the seat of self. I felt a geyser of aggressive, passionate, and destructive crimson power wash over my root chakra and gush upward to guide my Ajna, my "third eye." My gaze was pulled to the far left, near the school's brick wall, and I found the source of the scarlet energy. It was a little boy, about nine years old, wearing a red-and-blue-striped T-shirt, jeans, and an Avengers backpack. He was pulling something out of it, looking about furtively as he did. His eyes were wide, unblinking, and glassy. His skin was like wax. He was licking his lips. We locked eyes, the child and I, and I knew, and so did the thing behind his eyes.
"Excuse me," a deep voice with a Texas twang next to my ear said. "Is there a problem, sir?" I knew from the tone, from the way he spit out "sir," that he was a cop.
"Yeah," I said, my West Virginia accent in full bloom as I blew smoke in the cop's eyes and ducked around him, running fast. "Call for backup! That kid's got a fucking gun!" I sprinted to the end of the fence, turned the corner, and passed through the open gate toward the boy. The teachers were reacting to my dash, and I had to put my shoulder into one of them to knock him out of my way. Two others grabbed at me, though, trying to stop me.
"Settle down, now!" one of them growled. He was sincere in wanting to protect the kids, but he didn't move or grab me like someone who's gotten into too many scraps.
"Hey! Don't you move!" the cop yelled after me.
There was a snap, like a firecracker, then another, then the screaming began. "Goddamn it!" I said, struggling with the two men grabbing my arms. The playground crowd began to part as kids ran. There were two children on the ground in widening pools of blood, near the nine-year-old who was brandishing an old Colt Army .45.
"Fistulae Globis dormiat," I shouted as I opened my Muladhara lens instinctively, gesturing at the boy's gun. It wasn't my most elegant working, but my close-to-a-carton-of-cigarettes-a-day habit was making my lungs feel like they were being grated like cheese as I struggled with the teachers in the oppressive heat. I felt my spell wrap around the pistol in the kid's hand and then felt the crimson power radiating from the boy tear my working like cobwebs. Muladhara-against-Muladhara energies usually meant the bigger predator won. Not a comforting thought — I was used to being the biggest predator on the playground.
The spell did get his attention, and the boy pointed the gun in my direction and fired. I twisted one of the teachers trying to pin me, wrenching him between me and the gun. The man jerked as a bloody hole exploded in his back. He slid to the ground, convulsing in shock. I watched the life leave his eyes as he slid off me. The kid's face twisted in anger. I tripped the other teacher struggling with me, and the kid shot him in the face as he fell forward.
The school resource officer who had hassled me at the fence was only a few steps behind me as the second teacher fell. He raised his gun and aimed at the boy. "Joey," the cop called out, "put that gun down right now, son. Do it, or I'll have to shoot you!" The kids were fleeing through the double doors back into the school, blocking the cop's shot. Joey decided to make a run for it with them. "Joey!" the cop shouted and began to move into the screaming stream of children. Joey was lost in the blur. There was a loud bang, and the cop fell onto his back. I knelt beside him and saw he was still breathing, probably a vest.
I picked up the cop's 9mm and continued after Joey. I don't like guns. They make it too damn easy to kill. Even psychotics and children can pull it off with their help. However, bullets are faster than just about any magic spell you can care to lob, and I, for one, was not going to be the brain donor bringing magic to a gunfight.
Terror was smeared across the air of the cafeteria — shrieks of sanity being pulled loose at the seams, and sobs of innocence dying. Another gunshot. I dropped low behind a table by the door and found three little kids looking at me with huge eyes, moist with fear.
"Stay here," I said. "Help's coming." In the grand scheme of things, it was the lamest shit I could utter, but it was all I had. That kind of bullshit still played with kids this age. They still believed in "Help's coming" and "Everything will be okay." I made my way up the brick hall to the double doorway that led out into Matthew Stone Elementary School's central corridor. A little girl, maybe five or six, lay by the doorway, her tiny chest dark and wet with blood, her eyes fighting to stay open. They were pretty eyes too.
"Why?" she asked me, weakly. "Why did Joey hurt me? I thought he was nice."
I knelt by her and brushed her hair, slick with blood, out of her hazel eyes.
"It ain't Joey, darlin'," I said softly.
"Am I going to die?" the little girl asked.
"No, honey," I lied. "There are going to be some nice people coming along in a little bit. They're going to want you to get up and go with them. You do that, and I promise you they will fix you right up, okay? No more pain."
"Okay," the little girl said. She looked past me. "Oh," she said. "They're ... so ... pretty ..." She smiled at me, some blood drooled out of her suddenly slack mouth, and she died.
I set the gun down next to her. I didn't want to touch the damn thing anymore. I closed her eyes, crouched beside her there for a moment, waiting for some higher power to do the right fucking thing by this child and give her her life back. When that wasn't forthcoming, I got back to my feet. I didn't worry about fingerprints on the gun; I had cooked up an enchantment on my prints and DNA a long while back that gave computers and technicians fits.
I followed the sounds of fear and death to their source. It wasn't the first time I had heard those sounds, and it sure as hell wouldn't be the last. There were sirens outside now, lots of them. I saw news trucks as I passed a window, clustering around the cops and EMTs like fucking maggots squirming on a carcass. At least they were predictable.
I walked down dark, cool corridors of hastily locked doors decorated with big construction paper suns smiling down on stick-figure children. First names of students, written on little laminated clouds, denoted their homerooms. My boot steps echoed along the tiled walls. I smelled gun smoke and piss. Smeared finger paint art projects, book reports written on wide-lined practice paper with colored drawings to accompany them, were like chains of islands between the doors. I could hear trembling voices whispering behind those doors. The fear of the children and the adults sworn to protect them huddled in the classrooms, waiting, praying; it was palpable. Those voices, the words, the images on the wall. This place was custodian of the future, and the thing ahead of me wanted to murder it all for its own sick pleasure.
There was so much primal force at work here, so much relentless, inevitable death and so much desperate, aching life: the two surging, clashing, crashing. Someone like me — a magus, a shaman, fakir, medicine man, a miracle worker — could take those energies and stoke them, build on them to make themselves even more powerful, more like a god. The universe hits back though, and there was always a price paid for power culled from trauma. Believe me, I know all about that. I could teach a fucking class. Back home they called me a Wisdom.
The trail to Joey included two more dead bodies, another child and another adult, maybe a janitor. I was walking toward death yet again and I felt next to nothing, aside from a yearning not to be present in this awareness. The wider the doors of perception were thrown open, the more you began to wish someone would shut the fucking door and stop letting all the damned flies in.
Twenty feet from his last victim was an open door labeled STOREROOM. For a second, I wished I had kept the gun. I have never been big on dying for principle, but it was too late now. I stepped into the storeroom, more like a closet on steroids, shrouding myself in my own mystical and mental defenses as I did. Little Joey was sitting on the edge of a work table, the semi-auto .45 pistol in his hand. His skin was corpse-colored, glistening with sweat, and his eyes were fractured with broken blood vessels. He raised the pistol. The slide was locked back. It was empty.
"All out of bullets," the boy said. His voice was wrong, too deep, too mature to be coming out of a nine-year-old's mouth. He began to laugh as he dropped the gun to the floor. "Too bad. I was having a great time."
"Recess is over, asshole," I said. I aligned the energies inside my body, visualized them like jewels glittering in a vertical row, preparing them to begin. "Time to go back home, Dean."
"How the fuck do you know who I am?" the monster inside the child rumbled. The kid was running hot; I could feel the heat coming off his skin from ten feet away.
"You're also killing your host, like any good parasite does," I said. "Joey dies, you go back in, Dino."
"Then I'll take this little fucker with me," Dean said. "Last one for the road! Besides, it ups my kill-count."
"Okay," I said. "We're done here." I began to flex my Manipura chakra through my solar plexus, drawing all my personal energy in and the universe's raw fuel to boot. I visualized it as a cleansing white light, growing, building, a storm of pristine purity. I felt Dean's crimson Muladhara energy — his base, animal desire to survive at any cost — grow and thrash in reaction to my marshaling of powers.
"I claimed this child," Dean snarled; some sounds like dogs ripping apart meat issued from the boy's mouth. The temperature in the storeroom dropped to that of a meat locker as he stole its energy. Joey's eyes were now blazing as if they were made of red-hot metal. "I am one of the Hungry, the lonely ones, pushed from the accursed radiance by jealousy and hubris. Your petty magics are no match, little mortal, for one who has embodied hate against your kind since the human heart first beat."
I lowered my face. The boy was rippling with waves of heat, like hot asphalt, clashing with the numbing arctic cold. Dean hopped off the table's edge and took a step toward me.
"I am Zepar," he said, "the bringer of madness, and you are nothing to me, little cosmic speck."
I looked up into the possessed child's face; I couldn't help but grin. "Horseshit," I said, dragging the word out a bit with my drawl, and dropped my shroud of protective disciplines and gestured with a fist toward the child, launching a spear of pure cleansing light at the demon. The thing screamed, and I could hear the boy screaming too. "Zepar?" I said. "Really? Shit, Dean, that sounds like one of those medicines on the commercials where they tell you to seek medical help for a hard-on that lasts longer than four hours. 'Check with your doctor to see if Zepar is right for you.'"
"It burns!" the demon whined. The light was pinning it in place.
"Yeah, I'll bet it stings a bit. You're not Zepar, the bringer of madness. Does old Z even know that you're using his moniker up here? He's going to be pissed when you get back, Dino. They have trademark infringement laws in Hell? Probably got enough lawyers down there with time on their hands." The boy had dropped to the floor, first to his knees and then onto his back, writhing. His tongue was flickering in and out of his mouth, but the man's screams and the buzzing of insects continued issuing from him, unabated.
"Your name is Dean Corll," I said, "and you were a serial murderer of young boys. You raped, tortured, and murdered over twenty-eight kids before one of your scumbag accomplices shot you dead in 1973. You were a mortal speck, just like me, pal."
"Please make it stop! It hurts!" Corll said. "It's burning me ... and the boy! It's tearing his soul!"
"You've been everyone's punk-ass bitch in the big empty for over forty years, Dino," I said, "and you decided to make a break for it when Joey here and his mother moved into your old house on Lamar Drive. Isn't that right? Now get your ass out of that mobile home and run on back to Hell. Your landlord's waiting for you."
"No," Corll hissed. "This sweet little thing is mine, mine! I'll not give him up. I've planted my roots in his tender essence, and I won't easily be pulled out. If you don't stop this, you'll shred his soul. Who are you anyway, to order me about, to have so much power tucked away at your call, to dare to face one of the fallen with no protections, no fear?"
"You're more like 'the stumbling' than 'the fallen,' and only a poser, a wannabe, would call themselves that anyway. I'm Ballard, Laytham Ballard, and if you really want the rough trade, man, you got it."
As the light held him fast, I began to intone the ritual of exorcism, one of the variations I was taught over thirty years ago from a gruff old demonologist and his sweet, gray-haired, hymn-singing wife. It called on the nurturing powers of creation to compel the Hungry to depart the innocent host. It could take days, months, or even longer, but with all this pure Manipura energy behind it, a lightweight like Dean here should be heading for the exit.
Instead, Corll began to laugh, even as tears rolled down poor, convulsing Joey's cheeks. "You have some balls even uttering those words, half-soul-man," Corll growled. "We know of you in the empty places, Ballard. Ballard, the corrupt Nightwise; Ballard, who supped with our Master and skipped out on the check. Ballard, whom both monsters and saints fear ... and pity. You dare try to dislodge me from my meat with pretty, pretty holy words. You've bargained away pieces of your soul for petty powers and shallow favors. You're bound for a far greater hell than I, Ballard. You have no moral authority over me," the child-defiling demon said. "Keep trying to pull me out, and you'll add this boy to the endless roll of all those you have damned in your miserable life."
He was right, unfortunately, about all kinds of things. He'd have to willingly come out of there, and all that would be waiting for him was Hell, so I had to sweeten the pot a bit, or maybe more like piss in it. The spiritual light diminished and was gone. Corll guffawed, sounding for all the world like a rutting pig. Before he could rise off the floor, I took something from my shirt pocket and knelt beside him. It was a three-inch-long, dull, rusted needle. I placed it on Joey's chest and uttered, "Malum, manere donec veniam ad hanc formam amotus fuero." Then I grabbed an industrial-sized jug of bright blue window cleaner off the shelf next to me. "Fine," I said, "suit yourself." I unscrewed the cap of cleaner and took a whiff.
Excerpted from "The Night Dahlia"
Copyright © 2018 Rod Belcher.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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.