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Prologue: Smog Monsters


I’d just closed the door behind me when something grabbed me. And by “grabbed”, I mean “lifted me off the ground and slammed me into the nearest wall.”

I felt it bend a little under the impact while a nightmare that would have fit in an old-school John Carpenter movie started screaming at me. With my gas mask on, I never heard it coming.

I looked up, dazed and all I could make out were sharp yellowish teeth. They formed a circular pit of canines that looked like it could swallow my whole head. I pulled a knife out from my boot and slashed the creep at center mass. The thing’s scream went up an octave as the cold steel struck home. The unearthly creature dumped me back on the floor just before it dissipated into nothingness.

That attack had sucked the air out of my lungs and I spent the next few minutes coughing through the mask. I felt like kicking myself. I had spent my first week here carving wards around the entire six block area before going into it for the first time. I really should have known better than to carve one on this house’s front door and move on. I’d forgotten the back door and that had left that damned poltergeist way too much room to attack.

The monster du jour had been a ghost. An escapee from the realm of death, the underworld, hell, or whatever else you wanted to call the place people go to once they’re done with life. From what I knew, not everyone turns Casper in their afterlife. But those who do become near mindless creatures, stuck in their own plane of existence. When they make it to our side of the border, they turn full ectoplasmic savages.

The dead guy I noticed in front of the opened back door was proof enough of that. What had apparently been an engineer working for the city had a chest cavity cut down to the bone and his head severed from his body. Blood splatters all but drowned out the muted yellow of his shredded biohazard suit. Judging from the angle of what was left of his corpse, he had been trying to flee to the front door when the thing I’d just put down got him.

“Dammit,” I muttered as I tightened the straps on my gas mask. Whoever he’d been, I was pretty sure he didn’t come in here alone. That meant that I may have to explain what a six foot PI in a surplus army jacket, a gas mask right out of the First World War and second-to-thirdhand leather gloves was doing in an area strictly reserved for city workers and engineers. But that was the optimistic scenario. It could be that the rest of this guy’s team was just as dead as he was.

The house I was in hadn’t been livable in a while. It was part of the many buildings that went up in flames when our former Mayor, Jacinta Galatas, decided that opening a gate to hell downtown would help boost the economy. Even through the mask, the walls reeked of burnt wood, urine and a few other foul chemicals I was glad I couldn’t identify. The floor creaked so much as I walked from the living room to the kitchen that I was surprised my feet didn’t go right through it. But compared to what was waiting for me just past the dead man, this was the ideal home.

A mix of late afternoon fog and toxic dust started clouding up the lenses of my mask as I walked out the back door. The fog was typical for Cold City in February or “not-summer” as the locals call the three-to-four months a year when we get shitty weather. The nasty chemical soup, on the other hand, had only been common in this area since mid-December last year. The strangled sunlight above me shined through the big puffy cloudbanks of smog that swallowed the rest of the desolate landscape. Once upon a time, it had been downtown Cold City. Now it was a glorified rubble pit whose entrance streets were sealed off by a police cordon. You could still make out shattered brick and glass fragments here and there but otherwise you could only see for inches.

The house I’d just vacated opened on both sides of the cordon. It was sealed off, of course, but I’d long since turned master in the fine art of lock picking.

I pulled a compass from my pocket. It was an antique, the back and sides covered in intricate symbols. I watched the needle dance and stop on a point that was anywhere but True North.

Mad Mao, a Taoist sorcerer, had assured me that this compass was attuned to sniff ectoplasmic resonance, the nastier the better. The last week had proven the old man right. No matter how deep into the blast area they were, the compass had always managed to point out the nearest Alterum Mundum escapee. I’d started off with twenty that I had to put down. And if I’d been told the truth about this job, there was just one left to dispatch.

Alterum Mundum is fancy Latin for “other world”. It’s a parallel realm that exists next to ours. In it, you’ll find all the afterlives known to mankind, Heaven, Hell, Valkyrie, Elysium, you name it. For a couple of centuries now, it has been the home of all the Gods you can think of and all the creatures and monsters that you thought were just folklore.

I took a second to carve out the proper Celtic Ogham onto the inside back door before shutting it and following the needle. It was pointing towards my left. My battered combat boots made a soft, muffled sound as the various bits of debris and gravel crunched under them on the uneven ground. I did my best to not think about the real possibility that some of the things I was stepping on might have been bone. All this death and destruction in one place…how many of the formerly living were going to turn into nasty supernatural manifestations themselves once they got enough dead time under their belts?

Between wisps of smog, I caught a fleeting glimpse of Cinema Leone. The old movie house stood tall and proud amidst the rest of its fallen brethren, a lonely survivor of a holocaust that had taken out nearly all its neighbors. I was relieved to see the needle was pointing away from it. The sight of that place inspired way too many recent bad memories. But maybe I was short-selling it. There’s bad memories, there’s waking nightmares, there’s things you’ll never be able to get out of your brain for as long as you live. And finally, there’s what I saw coming out of that movie screen while surrounded by Vikings.

My discomfort gave way to irritation. Why was it always up to me to clean up the mess in this city anyway? Had it been my idea to blow up several blocks of downtown buildings just so someone could open an interdimensional gate to hell? No. Was I the one who used a rare triple intersection of ley lines to juice up my power and suck in necrotic energies from another world? Of course not. I was just plain old Bellamy Vale, the idiot goody-two shoes PI who’d stopped the daemon’s invasion, closed the gate to hell and saved the world. Hells, I almost died doing it too…or, rather, I would have, if only my boss would let me.

Well, Lady McDeath, as I liked to call her, wasn’t really my boss. But she held enough shares of my soul to be a lot more than my client. She was… damn, I wasn’t even sure what she was. A daemon? The grim reaper? The daughter of the God of Death who could kill me whenever it pleased her? Yeah, that last one sounded about right. All I knew for sure was that she was a cryptic bitch. A few years ago, we’d struck a bargain. I got a favor and the promise that she would keep me alive so long as I worked for her. That last part wasn’t as involved as it sounds. The way it worked was that she’d stop anything or anyone from killing me through the power of improbable coincidence. So long as I played the errand boy who takes care of tasks she deemed beneath her, the protection would hold. But, as she liked to remind me, she was going to kill me one day. Until then, nothing could end my life, no matter how hard they tried…and tried they did.

I heard something hiss through the smoky air, giving me the shivers even with the thick M65 field jacket on. I checked the compass, the needle stayed steady. I heard the hiss again a couple of seconds later, just ahead of me. The acoustics of the place were so screwed up that it was impossible for me to tell how far ahead it was.

While details in my books were sketchy, all of them agreed that poltergeists have some bad juju in their makeup. The wards constrained them to stay within the area of the blast radius but they would still suck the life out of any living soul they could get their claws on.

I swept the smog with my knife while I kept walking. Why not? I could always get lucky enough to snag this thing with a blind swipe, like I did with one of its brothers three days before. A paper cut would have been enough; manifested poltergeists are so fragile when it comes to steel blades that they make a Ming vase look indestructible.

I got nothing for my trouble, and I got the sinking feeling that this thing had better prey prospects than me. I sighed, as I struggled to keep my eyes open from the lack of sleep. I’d been playing ghostbuster for a solid week now, cleaning up the residual spirits that had managed to cross through the portal before I closed it down for good. They’d kept drifting about the rubble so much that tracking them had been a long, grinding hunt. It had taken time for them to become tangible enough to interact within this reality, and while it meant they could kill humans, it also meant that my blade finally had something to sink its teeth into. Today marked the first time I hadn’t gotten there soon enough. If only I had—

“Stop it, Vale,” I muttered, shaking my head to clear out the smog in my own brain. What was done was done. All I could do was try to save the rest of the team from their colleague’s fate.

Through the mists, I made out another shape, a standing apartment building that had managed to escape the explosions with destroyed windows and some damage to the brickwork. I knew that inside stood the remains of a lapis lazuli pyramid. That construct had been one of the three relays Mayor Galatas had used to harvests ley lines energy and power up her gate. My friend Zian had blown it to dust with plastic explosives, while I fought off Galatas and her minions within Cinema Leone.

I wasn’t surprised to see the compass aimed straight at the building. The residual necrotic flux still floating about the demolished stones made it the ideal hideout for the thing I was after. The hiss I heard just past the ajar front door confirmed my guess.

I pushed through the door and was rewarded with all-consuming darkness. The hallway ahead of me was a solid blackness despite the light streaming in behind me. The compass needle started spinning like a 1980s breakdancer, something it only did when I was within striking distance of my prey. I closed the door behind me with my foot while I put the compass back in my pocket. I pulled my angle head flashlight out, and clipped it to my belt.

The light never went past a couple of feet, a photo negative version of the fog outside. I strained to hear anything to make up for my lack of sight as I walked deeper into the hallway. I tried sniffing too but the only thing that made it past the mask’s filter was a nasty stench that reminded me of burning garbage. Every step I took made a muffled sound on the wood floor whose echoes seemed to die within the radius of the light. I had gotten all of six steps when I heard what sounded like human screams just under my feet.

“Oh, shit,” I whispered, picking up my pace.

Just to the left was a door marked “Basement”. It was ajar. Not wanting to be attacked from behind again, I scratched a duplicate of the ward on the inside of the metal door before closing it behind me and running downstairs.

A pale glow stick greeted me on the stairwell, casting a sickly green light that was a good match for my stomach. More of them dotted the stairwell like bread crumbs. Whoever I was after had probably left these to find their way back to the door. But it might also have let the thing I was hunting know somebody was in its home.

I heard the screams again as I hit the bottom of the stairs. Sounded like two voices, a man and woman muffled by their hazard suit masks. The man was screaming something but I couldn’t make it out. Didn’t really matter…the noise told me where they were. I took off down the corridor to my right.

I saw my first flash of yellow when the man’s screams turned to shrill. One of the engineers collided into me and gave me an impressive right hook to the head that staggered me. Meanwhile, the hissing from before started adding some screaming of its own as the sickening crunch of bones being smashed began to fill the air.

Dammit, I don’t have time for this, I thought as I picked myself up. Pushing my attacker aside with a rough shove, I ran towards the slasher movie soundtrack with my knife out. My light caught a glimpse of what looked like an oily black worm with four eyes and half a dozen wispy tentacles ripping apart the yellow packaging on the floor to get to the human inside.

With a war cry, I leapt at the thing, my arm pulled back for a slash. The creature was faster than me. One thick tentacle brushed me aside, knocking me into the wall as if I’d been a ragdoll. I fell to my knees, the air sucked out of my lungs. I’d kept a death grip on my knife and readied myself for the next swing. The thing’s mass started stretching like taffy, most of its tentacles still focused on the man who’d stopped screaming.

I tried to reach for the creature again, but one sturdy tentacle reached for my knife hand, pinning it to the floor. In the dimness, I could see the beast had two of its eyes hard set on me. They went comically round when something hit its head from behind. It was the engineer that had clocked me earlier. She was swinging a broken plank of wood, yelling incoherently at the creature. All this distracted the ectoplasmic savage enough for all four of its eyes to focus on her…big mistake.

I flicked the knife up in the air and rolled to catch it with my free hand. With a Psycho-style stab, I jabbed the point right into the tentacle pinning me. The giant worm puffed out of existence with a scream.

The remaining engineer ran past me to get to her colleague.  “Phil,” she said, kneeling next to the unmoving man. “Oh my god, Phil.”

I made my way to her and crouched by her side. From up-close it was obvious Phil wasn’t coming back. His head was at an unnatural angle, and blood caked the inside of his mask. It took a while for understanding to hit the woman though, and when it did, it hit her hard.

I waited for her to calm down before asking, “What’s your name?”

“Dana,” she breathed through the mask. “Dana Mulgrew…who the hell are you? What are you doing here?”

“I was hunting the things that got your partner here,” I said, standing up. “I just wish I’d gotten to this one in time.”

“There’s more of those…those things?” Dana asked in alarm as she all but leapt to her feet. She swayed a little and I steadied her.

I shook my head and kept a hand at her elbow. “That was the last one. It should be…well, safe isn’t the right word for this biohazard area. But they won’t be coming back.”

“There was another guy with us,” Dana said with urgency in her voice. “Jacob. We were just outside to check on Cinema Leone when—”

“Was he the only other guy on your team beside the two of you?” I asked.

“Yeah, it was just the three of us,” Dana said, desperate hope coloring her voice. “Did you—”

“He didn’t make it either,” I whispered.

“But you said that this thing was—”

“It was another one. Jacob was already dead when I got there.”

The sigh from her lips sounded so sad.

“We should get out of here,” I said as I steered us towards the stairs. “I’ll show you the house where Jacob is on the way.”

I climbed up before her, my flashlight showing us the steps.

“Why not just show me Jacob?” she asked.

“Because he’s in roughly the same state Phil’s in.”

By the time we got to the front door, I had given her my name and my occupation as a private investigator. The cover story I fed her was that I’d been hired by a private client who knew about the creatures that had infested the site and paid me to get rid of them. I wasn’t straining the truth too much. The only falsehood was the part about me getting paid for the work. Yeah, being Death Incarnate’s errand boy didn’t get you a dime in the pocket.

“How did you get in?” Dana asked as we walked away from the apartment building.

There’s a few loopholes through the debris the cops don’t know about,” I explained. “I’ve been using them to get in and out for the past week.”

“A week? In those clothes…this gunk can’t be good for you,” she said, pointing at my jacket.

“Sorry, my hazmat suit had to go in the wash today,” I replied, dryly.

It surprised me, when Dana started laughing at my lame answer. It hadn’t been that funny and we both knew it. It didn’t take long for her laugh to morph into equally hard tears. She leaned on me as she sobbed into her mask for a minute or two.

“Sorry,” she said, shying away.

It was hard to see through the mask but she seemed young. Mid-thirties maybe, with a keen round face; tall and a little bit on the heavy side. I’m sure she was a nice girl, and she didn’t deserve any of the nightmare that’d just fallen on her shoulders. Hells, I wish I could do more to help, but I was at a loss.

It’s just shock,” I assured her, giving her shoulder a friendly squeeze. “It’s never easy to see death up close the first time.”

“Does it ever get any easier?” she asked me.

I shook my head. “No. It doesn’t.”

“What do I tell people about how my team died?”

“Anything but the truth,” I advised her, “or they’ll lock you up with the crazies.”

I peered around to see if we were near the perimeter yet. “My suggestion is that you wound up tangling with a lone survivor of the bombings who thought you all looked like a good meal.”

“And where was he when the blast hit?” Dana asked.

“Sewers,” I answered without missing a beat. “He probably stayed down there for longer than he should have. By the time he finally found a manhole cover that wasn’t blocked by debris, he was crazy from the isolation. And that was before the crap in the air drove him even more out of his mind.”

“And where is he or his body now?” This question had a real edge in it.

“How should you know? Last you saw him, he was running away, probably back down in the sewers he popped out of. You were a little too busy trying to figure out how you were going to survive to notice.”

I could just make out the house I had been in earlier when Dana said, “You’ve had a lot of practice at lying.”

“Occupational hazard,” I replied, pointing at the building we were standing by. “That’s the place where Jacob checked out.”

Dana started walking towards it when I caught her shoulder again. “I meant what I said about the shape he’s in.”

“I’m not a child!” Dana argued back, throwing my shoulder.

“No, you’re a traumatized young woman who is probably going to have a lifetime of nightmares,” I retorted. “Do you really want to add to them?”

Dana took a breath but shook her head. “I owe it to him to see it.”

“You owe it to him to remember him as an un-dismembered human being,” I argued back.

I could feel Dana wavering but I didn’t have anything else to say. The call was hers. Finally she nodded. “So where’s the police cordon from here?”

I led her through the debris until we reached one of the gaps I’d found. It was an easy one that wouldn’t require her to lift or push anything. I gave her enough directions to make it out on her own. I wish I could have accompanied her, but the passage opened onto a busy street and it wouldn’t do to be seen with her. She had a story to stick to and I had no place in it.

I took a long hike back across the ruins to another exit, left of the building where Jacob had died. I wound up going through the broken septic tank of another house which gave way to a root cellar in the house next door.

My latest mission for her was over but I felt no sense of accomplishment. Lady McDeath always threw me into the most messed-up situations imaginable with just the bare minimum of information to guide me. Hells, it took me two weeks to figure out I was dealing with poltergeists on this one. Then another one to educate myself enough on the subject to have a chance at surviving them with all my limbs still attached.

“Ah, what did you expect, Vale?” I asked myself as I opened the cellar door to climb outside. “When has one of her missions ever gone according to plan, huh?”

I could feel myself fading as I got out onto Wolfman Street. My adrenaline tank had run dry with the end of the job. I took the gas mask off and stuffed it in my pocket.

Dusk had started to fall on the city and a soft wind chilled the air. I wish I could go home and sleep, but there was one more thing I had to do. I pulled out my smartphone and dialed up my girlfriend.

“Sergeant Ramirez,” a Spanish-accented voice said on the other end.

It brought a smile to my lips. Melanie Ramirez had been living in the US for the better part of the last twenty years, but a thick Dominican accent still colored her every word.

“Mel, it’s me,” I said wearily, walking away from the house.

“Oh, don’t tell me that you’re calling up to cancel our date,” she said, her tone rising in warning.

“I’m afraid that it’s more than just that,” I said. “Got a body to report close to the reconstruction site, an engineer from the looks of him.”

“And what were you doing anywhere near that site?” she asked, her voice switching to her cop tone. “It’s off-limits to civilians. And you are a civilian, Bell.”

I sighed. This was exactly the kind of conversation I did not want to have right now. But it was one of the hazards of being in a relationship with one of Cold City’s best Detective Sergeants.

This was our third try at the whole boyfriend/girlfriend thing. We had got back together shortly after downtown Cold City went ka-boom. Ramirez had no idea what really went on, of course. No mortal should ever know and I’m speaking as one who does. But she was a smart cookie on top of being a really good homicide detective. I’m pretty sure that she knew I was involved somehow and stopped it from being worse than it was. Maybe that was even why she’d decided to give us another chance.

“Look, just get Lieutenant Morgan and a CSI team over to…329 Wolfman,” I said, powering through my exhaustion enough to remember the address. “I’ll be waiting in the front yard.”

Ramirez blew an annoyed breath into the phone. “You said that you wanted it to be different this time, Bell.”

“I still do,” I replied, stone truth behind my words. “But I am what I am, Mel, whether I’m involved with you or not.”

“Alright, fine,” she said. “But you had better make this up to me later, entiendes?”

“Scout’s honor,” I said with a pirate grin on my face. “We’ll get that date rescheduled for a better night, I promise.”

We said our goodbyes and I found a nearby porch to sit on. I was just starting to nod off when I heard the sirens get close.

As expected, Detective Lieutenant Morgan was at the front of his troops and making a beeline for me. His heavy face glowered at me. He was tall, with dark short-cropped hair and bushy eyebrows. He towered above me, as he asked in his usual gruff basso voice, “Alright, Vale, what did you do this time?”

“Found a dismembered corpse,” I answered, jerking one of my gloved thumbs towards the house and what lay inside.

“Uh huh and did that knife in your hand do anything to put it there?”

Shit, I thought, looking down at my hand. I knew better than that.

I threw the blade into the ground between us. “Take a closer look, Lieutenant. There’s not a drop of blood on it and never has been.”

Morgan pulled out some cuffs, prompting me to say, “I wouldn’t recommend you touching me right now.” I used my free hand to tap my clothes for emphasis. A dust cloud came off me to help me make my point.

Ramirez came up with the CSI team right behind her. Her cute button nose wrinkled at the sight and probably smell of me. Everything else on her was cute too, from her shapely legs to her well put-together face. She had long dark hair she had pulled back in a ponytail. The t-shirt and blue jeans looked like they’d been just thrown on, making me wonder what kind of a dress she would have worn if I’d kept my date.

I gave the CSI team direction to where Jacob was, skipping the part explaining how I’d gotten past the cordon.

Ramirez stayed behind with me and Morgan. That made the Lieutenant’s frown deepen. “You got something to tell me, Sergeant, or do you just like this punk’s company that much?” he asked.

“Just got a call from one of the patrols at another junction of the cordon,” she explained. “One of the city engineers just got back with a story about how the rest of her team was killed by a maniac. One of them was apparently in this house.”

“What about the other one?” Morgan asked.

“Deeper in the zone,” Ramirez said, giving me a look. “According to her, she just barely got away from the guy who did it.”

“She get a good look at him?”

Ramirez shook her head.

“Fine. Could be anyone then,” Morgan said, as he came at me to snap the cuffs on.

“Hey, remember what I said about—”

“I’ll take a delousing shower later,” he cut me, picking up my knife out of the ground with gloved fingers. “Look at that, Sargent Ramirez, we’ve found ourselves an armed suspect.”