IN THE SHADOW OF HIS NEMESIS teaser chapter

Thursday November 7th 1996

Reclaiming her parent’s house from weeks of neglect had left Isobel feeling tired and dirty; but at least it had taken her mind off other things. It wasn’t until the drive home, when she was alone with her thoughts that it all came back to her. The whistle and flap of the garbage bag she had taped over the window seemed to mock her leaving her feeling like she was still nothing more than the clueless, helpless girl she had been in high school.

NO! Isobel squelched the thought as she parked her car and headed into her apartment building. You’re not that girl anymore! Her skin cleared up, she lost some weight, she went to college and she got a real job.

And, the thought was so sweet that it left her smiling to herself as she rode the elevator up to her floor, she got her own place.

Moving out, it was a minor rite of passage for some but for her it was a great shining victory. She had moved out in the middle of a family confrontation. Isobel remembered her mother’s voice, “How do you think you’ll survive out on your own? You don’t know anything! You don’t know how to budget yourself-you blow half your paycheck the day you get it! You don’t know how to do your own laundry! You barely know how to keep house! You’ll be broke and back in a month!”

The going had been rough at first, mostly because she didn’t know anything about budgeting, laundry or keeping house, but she learned. The one month deadline’s passing was marked by a phone call from her father. Isobel had been proud to tell him she was doing fine.

Isobel’s smile fell as she unlocked the door of her apartment and stepped inside. She didn’t remember leaving the TV on. Her nose wrinkled at the smell hanging in the air, an odor she associated with meat gone bad. The door swung to a close behind her.

Her tongue went dry at the sight of the dead body. Disbelief made her vision blur and snap back into focus. Blood pooled and streaked the fabric of the couch, congealing in the gaps between the cushions.

Isobel blinked trying to make the vision disappear but it remained. The eyes were wide and glassy. The lips bloody and grimacing. The top of the skull was gone, leaving nothing but jagged bone and tatters of skin.

Finally she recognized the remains of the half-peeled face.

Her legs failed her and she slumped against the wall. Who had done this? Nick must have come by to try and make up, as he always did. He knew her weakness for surprise visits all too well. What had he found waiting for him?

Galen? Could Galen have done this?

“For what its worth,” a woman stepped out of the kitchen. She was simply gorgeous; it was the kind of easy attractiveness that made Isobel self-conscious. The woman wore a white blouse, it was unbuttoned to the waist and a single bloody thumbprint marred the crisp silk. “His dying thoughts had nothing to do with you. You meant nothing to him.”

“What?”

She sat down on the recliner and ran her hands through her long hair, “He thought of his mother, typical really.”

A man stepped out of the kitchen, he and the woman made perfect bookends with their cool beauty. “You’ll have to pardon her.” He said, “She ate too fast.”

The woman began to button her blouse with shaky fingers, “Color me chastised.”

“You did this?” Isobel said. “Who are you?”

“Ah.” The man smiled, his teeth were perfect, “My companion is known as Ms. Ginnmett and I am called Mr. Sauno.”

“So formal.” The woman said, “I’m Helen, this is Peirs.”

Their names barely even managed to register, Isobel was too busy wondering what they had planned for her. Again and again her gaze returned to what was left of Nick, “Why did you- How-”

“You shouldn’t concern yourself with such things.” Peirs Sauno said.

“If- if you don’t get out of here I’ll scream.”

“You don’t think he tried screaming?” Helen Ginnmett picked idly at her fingernails, “Where did it get him?”

Where… where is his brain?

Then she remembered Piers Sauno’s words, “You’ll have to pardon her… She ate too fast.”

Isobel began to shake, “What do you want? I’ll give you money, I’ll give you anything you want.”

Mr. Sauno stepped towards Isobel, when she tried to back up he only moved closer showing her there was no way she could make a break for the door, “All we desire is information. Answer one simple question and we will leave. Where is Galen?”

The shivering stopped, Isobel’s mind became reptile calm, “W-who?”

Helen Ginnmett laughed, Mr. Sauno silenced her with a gesture.

Isobel’s hand snaked into her coat pocket, the .22 caliber pistol Cheryl had insisted she take. Where was the safety again?

Piers Sauno frowned, “We know you rescued Galen last night. I’ll give you one more chance. One final chance, tell us where he is.”

“But I don’t know anything. I just gave him a ride.”

“There are rides.” Ms. Ginnmett stood with a wink, “And then there are rides.”

“He’s not here. He left after… he left in the morning.”

Mr. Sauno’s frown deepened, “That sounds like him all right. He got what he wanted and then left.”

Ms. Ginnmett agreed, “You don’t owe him anything. If he said anything, anything at all about where he might be going…”

Isobel played up the edge of panic in her voice, “I’ll do anything you want. Just please don’t hurt me. Please don’t hurt me. I don’t want to die.”

“Then just tell us.”

“Just don’t hurt me. I won’t go to the police, I swear I don’t know anything.”

Mr. Sauno spoke like a parent trying to calm a hysterical child, “No one else has to get hurt, just tell us where he is.”

A familiar voice interrupted them “Leave her alone.”

Galen stood in the open doorway, looking like a movie hero come to rescue his damsel in distress.

Mr. Sauno nodded, “There you are. I thought we’d lost you to the Hanged Man and his sycophants.”

Both intruders were moving towards Galen now, Isobel suddenly beneath their concern.

“Just let her go.” Galen said, “She has nothing to do with this.”

Ms. Ginnmett laughed “If she has nothing to do with this then why did you come back?”

“You’re tensing up there Galen.” Piers Sauno said, ” We can’t have that.”

Galen raised his hands, “Let’s all calm down here. The Monarchs need me.”

“That does explain why you’re still alive doesn’t it?”

His hands. Isobel realized, What happened to the cuts on his hands? They’re gone.

A pair of synchronized snaps drew Isobel’s attention from Galen back to the intruders. Slender lengths of white metal had emerged from beneath the flesh at the back of their wrists. They looked sharp as knives.

Ms. Ginnmett said “Time to pay the piper our little Dauphin.”

“Dauphin!” Mr. Sauno smiled thinly, “You are a treasure Helen.”

Galen said, “Get out of here Isobel.”

“Yes.” Mr. Sauno nodded towards her, “Run if you want. We’ll catch up to you later.”

“May as well.” Ms. Ginnmett frowned thoughtfully, “You’re never going to get that safety deposit back. ”

“You going to come quietly Galen? The Monarchs are anxious.” Mr. Sauno drew back his arm, the edge of the blade shimmered.

What am I going to do? Isobel thought. How could she every truly escape this? Who could protect her from the likes of Helen Ginnmett and Piers Sauno. If nothing else she was most likely going to find herself a murder suspect by the morning. Isobel was cornered and she knew it.

Besides, Galen was here, she couldn’t lose him again. She wouldn’t.

“Listen-” Galen began again, “We’re all on the same side here-”

“Stay away from him!” Isobel tore out the inside of her pocket as she drew the gun. She let her aim waver between Nick’s murderers.

“Oh heavens.” Ms. Ginnmett’s voice was deadpan “She’s got a gun.”

A look of annoyance creased Mr. Sauno’s face, “What’s one more body then?”

He lunged for her. Galen tried to get between them but only managed to knock Mr. Sauno’s first slash wide of the mark. Isobel stumbled backwards and fired. The first bullet grazed his shoulder, the second missed him completely.

The stinging sensation seemed distant at first. Isobel was too preoccupied with the ringing of her ears. Then she looked down at the back of her forearm. A deep diagonal wound had been cut into the meat of it. Already her sleeve was soaked with blood. The pain reached her then and it flowered. Isobel tightened her grip on the gun and sat up, trying to get her bearings.

Ms. Ginnmett was at tussling on the floor with Galen, her breathing was even, her expression full of detached determination. There was a sour chemical smell in the air like cleaning products and burnt plastic. Mr. Sauno grabbed hold of her gun hand. Isobel saw the wound she had given him but it was all wrong. The blood was watery and the color of mustard, the bone was dull and blue gray.

What are they?

“No gun license but I should have suspected.” Mr. Sauno said, “Now why don’t you-”

“Get away from me!” Isobel fired three shots into Mr. Sauno’s leg. There was a hissing sound and his knee buckled. He slashed at her again as he went down cutting deep into her side. Pain swallowed her senses.

A cracking sound filled the air as Galen had bent both of Ms. Ginnmett’s arms back at an impossible angle.

“Oh damnit.” She said.

Isobel wondered how many of her neighbors were dialing 911.

Mr. Sauno dove at her, catching her in a clumsy tackle. The chemical smell was overpowering up close, it left her eyes watering.

What are they?

Then Galen was on Mr. Sauno’s back, straddling him. “Enough!” He pulled at the man’s head and twisted his until there was a metallic snap.

Ms. Ginmett got to her feet again and Isobel fired the last few bullets in a blind panic. The first bullet did nothing more than punch a hole in the wall, the remaining caught Ms. Ginmett in the chest and face. Globs of orange fluid and clumps of rubbery flesh spattered the walls, revealing sinews of copper and bones the color of a hospital floor.

Somehow Mr. Sauno was still talking, still grabbing at Galen, “Ungrateful-”

It was all too much now, Galen or no Galen. Isobel ran from the apartment shoving her way past the neighbors gathering in the hallway. She ran down the stairs taking the steps two and three at a time until she was out of the building.

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THE COLD INSIDE teaser chapter

Monday November 7, 1994

Nestled within a wooded campus located on the outskirts of Albany, New York was the Blessed Heart Academy. The Academy had begun its life almost a hundred and fifty years ago as a convent. In the nineteen-thirties it had evolved into a Catholic School and then it evolved again in the nineteen-sixties into a non-denominational Christian-leaning private school. The architecture of the institution reflected these changes. The chapel and the administration buildings were lofty, imposing and gothic. The wing that held the kindergarten through eighth grade students was a squat, brick edifice built in the early days of the second world war, the wing for the high school students was a sterile-looking complex of concrete and glass. All the buildings were connected by a series of marble walkways that had been added in the eighties.

Originally the teaching staff had been priests and nuns, but as time passed, they were replaced by a mostly secular personnel.

At eight o’clock, Blessed Heart’s fleet of tiny yellow buses began to arrive, leaving uniformed boys and girls from ages seven to nineteen to mill around the school’s main entrance. A pair of elderly nuns watched them from a window high up in the main building. A handful of aging nuns still lived there, their population dwindling by the year.

Most students didn’t linger in the chilly November morning, as soon as they were dropped off they made their way inside. Most went to their lockers; others went to their homerooms. In spite of the frosty morning the Magnificent Seven stayed outside until the five-minute warning bell had rung. It was safer that way.

“You missed a great D&D session man.”

Tristam shrugged, “It was my weekend to be with my Dad.”

“You chose your Dad over the final showdown with Ken-Zarr the Lich?” Gregory Fletcher shook his head with mock disbelief. He was thin and tall with sandy blonde hair, he was constantly fiddling with his glasses, adjusting and readjusting them. His friends called him Greg, the other kids called him Graveyard.

“I’m crazy that way.”

“Can I call you ugly instead?” Warren Talbot was about 80 pounds overweight and hung on to his grudges for dear life. “How about insipid? Moronic? A slack-jawed troglodyte?”

Tristam shook his head. “What did you eat a thesaurus for breakfast?”

Greg shook his head, “And so it begins…”

“Isn’t it a little early in the week for this?” Adelphos Chavez groaned. He was dusky-skinned and wiry. A dime-sized scar neatly bisected his left eyebrow. “Let’s just get back to the game, I want you to hear how I beat that Lich bastard down with his own staff.”

Greg smiled at the memory “Oh yeah that was cool. It was critical hit city, see he-”

Warren and Tristam however were just starting to pick up steam. Warren crossed his arms, “Look, just because your love life is on permanent hold.”

“Look who’s talking. You know it doesn’t count as your girlfriend if you have to inflate it with a bicycle pump.”

“I have a girlfriend you half-wit.”

Tristam snorted “Then why don’t you have any pictures to show us? You must know someone with a camera that has a wide angle lens.”

“Killed any small animals lately?”

“Eaten any large ones?”

“It is like they are in love.” Yusuf commented. With his similar skin tone and early beard he might have passed for Adelphos’ brother but his thick accent revealed his middle-eastern heritage. That was enough to make him an outcast at Blessed Heart, the recent Gulf War had only made things worse.

“Yeah right.” Adelphos laughed, “They should get a room. Consummate the relationship.”

“What is ‘consommé’?”

Greg let out a tiny scream, “Curse you for putting that image in my head! Curse you!”

Warren spoke through gritted teeth, “She’s real, she just lives in Utica.”

“Oh please.” Tristam laughed.

“So what we have here…” Drew Griffin said, “…is two of the least popular students in the school arguing about which one is the bigger loser.” Drew wore loose clothes and had frizzy blonde hair. A purple birthmark the size of a fist covered most of her right cheek. Most of the time she kept her head down and let her hair fall across her features.

“I’d have thought there would be a kind of camaraderie at the bottom of the barrel.” Rich Head sighed. Plain-looking and pale complexioned, of all the Magnificent Seven he might have eluded the derision of his peers if not for his unfortunate last name and his obsession with the works of Michael Moorcock.

Drew frowned “That only happens on TV. Welcome to Hell.”

“I think you are wrong.” Yusuf said, “I do not think that Hell would charge such high tuition costs.”

IN THE MIDNIGHT OF HIS HEART teaser chapter

April 24, 1993

Four men with huddled near the doorway of an abandoned hotel passing a crack pipe amongst each other. Richie had suggested they go inside and check the place out for something saleable. At first Jerr, Ken and Bri had been more than happy to follow along. Richie was always good at getting money to fuel their habit, he always seemed to know what cars didn’t have alarms and what apartments where the best to break into. The man had a gift.

Once they got near the building however their nerves started to go south. Everyone started getting paranoid and seeing cop cars that weren’t there. It made Richie crazy, he wanted to go in there and find something to sell. Jerr was the one to say what was on their minds, that he thought the place was haunted.

That got Jerr a good slap in the mouth from Richie. From there things deteriorated into a lot of whining and shouting until finally Richie said they’d all have a little crack to get their nerves up, then they’d go inside.

They were just finishing up when Bri saw the old man. He wasn’t one of the local crazies, none of the four had ever seen him before.

Whoever he was it was suicide being here in this neighborhood, at this hour of the night. This was a place where the streetlights were few and far between, and the police only visited in well-armed groups. The four crackheads watched the old man approach, listened to the steady click click click of his cane hitting the pavement. Leaning in the doorway of the abandoned they awaited his arrival. “I guess we don’t have to go inside after all.” Richie whispered.

“I dunno I’m on probation.”

“Christ Jerr, you and your fuckin’ probation.” Richie gave him a rough shove, “Lookit him, he’s gotta have money.”

“Then what’s he doin’ here?”

“He’s old! He probably don’t even know where he is!”

“But what if he’s got no money?”

Richie’s only reply was to slap Jerr hard across the face.

“But-” Another of the foursome piped up, “He’s right, what if he don’t have any money?”

Waving his hand dismissively Richie said, “Then he’s really gonna get a beating.”

Before there could be any further argument their target stepped onto their block. Only Richie and Jerr were armed with guns, Brian and Ken had to make do with knives. They watched him, trying to gauge if he was aware of his peril, but he was plodding on steadily towards his doom. The four of them tensed with each click of his cane. Richie couldn’t help but smile, he could care less if the old man had money or not- all he wanted to do was make him bleed and beg. Jerr shifted nervously in place, images of a return to prison filling his mind. They waited for the old man to pass, but he didn’t.

He paused right in front of them, staring up at the abandoned hotel. The four crackheads looked around uncomfortably, unsure of what to do. Up close he was nothing like they had imagined, his hair was long and his frame was burly- there was no fear in him.

Ken was the first to speak, “What are you lookin’ at?”

“Yeah.” Brian agreed.

“This is where it all ended.” the old man pointed to the ruined building.

They looked at him with a combination of confusion and disbelief.

“I haven’t been here in thirty-five years. I can’t believe this place is still standing.” the old man rambled on, “Maybe August was right after all. Poor August.”

“What the fuck are you talkin’ about?” Richie didn’t know who the hell August was and that was making him all the angrier.

“You see, we thought it was s rescue mission but it wasn’t. I should have suspected.” the old man shrugged, “After all Project Pharos was really nothing more than a training camp. A way Victor could gather allies for whatever it was he was planning. I’m still not sure what it was plotting to do, he just said that he would move when the time was right. And when he did he would change the world.”

Jerr’s resolve broke, “Just get the hell out of here old man!”

He sighed sadly, “He never even confided in me and I’d been with him the longest. It didn’t matter though, I was sworn to protect him and even if I wasn’t… he was all I had.”

With a hot glance to Jerr, Richie reached in the pocket of his ratty jacket. His hand closed around the handle of his .38, he was going to shut this old man up real fast.

But the old man apparently had other ideas. He stopped talking and strolled casually past the four of them into the old hotel. That confirmed Jerr’s belief that the old man was suicidal. After a furtive glance around to make sure no one was watching, Richie followed. Ken and Bri followed.

“Hey!” he called, “Hey old man.”

Jerr stiffened catching a fleeting glimpse of a quick, animal-like movement, a fluttering shadow against a backdrop of shadows. His blood turned to ice as he heard a guttural muttering. Feeling like he was trapped in a nightmare, Jerr reluctantly followed.

They were in what must have once been an opulent lobby, now it was naked, with peeling walls and a sagging ceiling. Illumination filtered in through the boarded up windows, not enough to see by, just enough to confused their light-starved eyes.

“Old man!” Richie drew his pistol from his jacket, Bri and Ken drew their knives. Jerr drew his gun but kept it pointed down. Richie waved at the three of them, making them spread out, “Old man! Just give us your money and we’ll let you go.”

The muttering became a low growl.

A shape pounced on Brian, his scream was cut short as he fell back, his arms pinwheeling. Jerr caught him and issued a cry of his own as he saw the man’s throat had been torn open.

Taunting laughter filled the alley. Brian was twitching, his fingers clawing at the ragged hole in his windpipe. Jerr let him fall to the ground and ran back out the door.

The sound of blows hitting vulnerable flesh filled the air. Ken screamed, “Jesus help me! Jesus!”

Richie fired wildly, the muzzle flash giving him glimpses of the old man moving too fast, his clothes dark with blood. He kept pulling the trigger until he was out of bullets. His ears rung and he was flash- blinded but he knew he had to have hit something.

When his vision cleared he saw the old man standing before him, his face gore-soaked. In that one fatal moment all Richie’s street-honed survival instincts failed him and could only stand paralyzed as the old man sprung forward.