Bess pulled her Dodge Charger into a backstreet that divided many of the old, opulent homes of Riverside. She parked beneath a willow tree so the branches draped over the hood of the car. She hit the ignition button, and the engine gave a throaty rumble and fell dead.
Bess popped the trunk, shed her seat belt, and got out, easing her door closed. Anderson did the same. They circled around to the back of the Charger. Bess lifted the lid and peered at what she'd brought.
“Wow,” Anderson said, eyes roaming over the array of weaponry displayed across the bed.
“Standard issue,” Bess replied, reaching in and opening a case holding three MP5 assault rifles. “I’m assuming you can handle these?”
Anderson bent over the trunk, peering inside. His hands hesitated over one of the MP5s in Bess’s collection, but then reached instead for couple handguns resting in their molded nooks on the far right. “Going to be close quarters in there. I'll be better off with these.” Anderson hooked holsters onto his belt and tucked the guns into them.
Bess nodded, hefted a backpack filled with extra gear, and shrugged into it. She picked a compact MP5 submachine gun from its locks and screwed on its suppressor. With the subsonic rounds, Bess would be a silent killer. Her normal carry weapons were holstered. A pistol tucked at her hip, several explosive vials of holy water straight from the Vatican in a side pouch, her favorite razor sharp carbon steel dagger, and some other surprises she liked to keep on hand.
She checked her MP5, locked in a magazine, and loaded a round. Packed a couple extra magazines into an inner pocket of her jacket, although she seldom needed more than one. Then she hooked the weapon’s strap over her shoulder and allowed it to rest on her hip with the barrel pointed at the ground. “You’ve been briefed I assume?”
Bess hadn’t been thrilled about picking Anderson up at the last minute. She didn’t know the guy from Adam, and she hated working with a partner. But it wasn’t up to her who they assigned. No, that was all Eminence Command Central. The ECC. Sometimes they got the bright idea to send her a sidekick. Usually a newbie, or someone with low academy grades who needed to earn redemption points.
Didn’t mean she had to like it.
Anderson nodded, pulling up his pants. His hands were nervous, fidgety. They knocked against the bulky guns, which protruded from his belt. He didn’t seem comfortable with weapons. Didn’t seem comfortable at all. Why had they stuck her with a logistics guy?
He said, “Yeah, a whorchal named Krag. Real nasty bastard. That’s all they told me. I figure I’ll let you lead—”
Bess stepped forward and grabbed Anderson by the front of his shirt. She put her face two inches from his, lips drawing back from her teeth. “Damn right you’ll let me lead. And you’ll be damn careful to keep your guns pointed away from me. Maybe don't even draw them unless I tell you. Maybe just stay in the car because you don’t look like you can handle a God blessed thing.”
A spark of fear mixed with anger lit Anderson’s eyes. He jerked. “No, I got this. I’ve raided. Just not with a…” Anderson’s eyes flashed away.
Bess stepped back, fist curled and ready to smash him in the face. Better than smoking him with her MP5. No, that would get a reprimand. “Just not raided with a black woman? Right?”
Realization dawned on Anderson's face. His hands flew up, and he appeared genuinely apologetic. “No, no. I didn’t mean it that way. I like black people. I mean, you’re fine. Not that you would be anything less than fine. I meant that I’ve never been on a monster hunt this huge before. I’m nervous is all.”
“Fine,” Bess said, letting it slide. A bell chimed in the back of her mind. They were wasting time. She had to focus. “Just keep quiet and do exactly as I say.”
“Okay.” Anderson stopped his apologizing and drew one of the Glocks, holding it in a two-fisted grip. He didn’t handle it too terribly. His hands weren’t shaking anymore. That was a good thing. “I’m ready.”
Bess gave him what she hoped was a skeptical look. She needed this guy to be frosty, and if being a bitch to him got him there quicker, so be it. “I hope so. Because if you’re not, you’re going to die fast. And I don’t need that shit on my record.” When Anderson didn’t reply except for a sober nod, Bess continued. “This whorchal is one of the most dangerous creatures you’ll ever meet. You’ll know him when you see him. Big, tall, blond sucker who looks like he walked out of a Third Reich monster movie. Chances are you won’t see him coming, but lucky for us we’ll get to practice on his lackeys first."
“Got it. We'll warm up with less menacing monsters before moving on to the boss monster. Just like Triton D. Any word on what those other monsters might be?”
Bess wanted to shake her head at the video game reference. Wanted to shake Anderson. “Last report says he travels with at least two human familiars. One’s a guy they call Jedi. The other one Krag holds much closer to him, so I don't have a description. Both are considered armed and dangerous. There’s evidence he has a ghoulkine or two in thrall and an assortment of hoarbeasts. It isn’t a lot to go on, but we'll deal with it. Always do. ECC said they’re having trouble with intel lately. Network infiltrations. But you knew that, right?”
“Yeah, I knew.”
Bess gestured with her rifle. “Everything is mixed rounds. Silvershard, ultraviolet, and some new stuff. Should work well on anything you hit. But you gotta hit them first. Got that?”
She handed him a tiny ear piece and activated one for herself. “Say something.”
Anderson stuck the piece in his ear and fidgeted with it. “Base to Red Leader. Base to Red Leader. Over.”
Bess heard him fine through the hi-def speaker. “Okay. Time to pray.”
“Oh, right.” Anderson re-holstered his weapon and held out his hand.
Bess raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“Oh, I usually hold hands when I pray with someone. You don’t?”
“No, I don’t.”
Anderson stepped back, giving Bess a quick nod.
Bess sighed, closed her eyes, and tried to find her center. She leaned forward over the nest of weapons and rounds, damn near a thousand, and rested her fingers on the lip of the trunk. She whispered her normal prayer, the one she used before any monster hunt. “Lord Jesus, please protect and guide me on this dangerous mission, for I am but a lamb entering the den of wolves and I shall forever need Your protection.”
“We don’t pray together?”
Bess ignored Anderson, tilting her head further in concentration, her voice taking on a more intense tone. “While I’m not as perfect as Your love for me, I seek only to serve and obey You, to protect others who’ve not yet found You so they may at least have a chance for salvation before this world ends. Before they breathe their dying breath. I give myself to You, O Lord, to do with as You will. Let me be Your sword with which to strike down Your enemies and bring vengeance to those who invade Your Eden. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
Bess kissed her fingers and touched the cross affixed to the underside of the trunk’s lid before turning to Anderson. “I don’t do group prayer.” Not entirely true. She often prayed with her father. And at church. But mostly her discussions with the Lord were private, between her and her savior alone. Definitely not with Anderson.
“Oh, no problem.”
Bess eased the trunk shut and stalked the driveway between the yards. Small plots. Room enough for kids to horse around and dads to grill out. The real opulence was in the homes themselves. The oldest in Covington, many of them dating back to the founding of Greater Cincinnati, solid brick buildings that had worn a dozen roofs and housed generations of families. Bess had done her research and knew a handful had even been donated to the city tour, made into museums by owners who no longer found such decadence quaint anymore. These homes had walls of wood and old plaster, not the drywall you could put a hammer through so easily these days.
Important to note such things when you’re about to fight a whorchal.
Whorchals. The real version of vampires. Worse than anything in the movies. At least the traditional ones had a hint of romanticism attached to them. But not whorchals. No, these were beasts with super human strength and teeth that could tear four inches of flesh from you in a second.
Their target was a red brick home on the corner. Fenced in yard and shielded from prying eyes by a line of privacy trees.
“What’s the plan?” Anderson was right on her heels, boots crunching on the gravel, vinyl outfit squeaking with ten kinds of noise.
Bess allowed her gun to hang loose at her hip while she searched the top of the fence through the thick trees. She snickered. “It’s simple. I'll move in and take this whorchal. You'll try to keep up.”
Anderson nodded and mimicked her stance halfheartedly. “Got it.”
Bess grabbed the top of the fence and pulled herself over the shrubs, hugging her elbows close so she didn’t get caught on branches, and landed on both feet in the grass. Aside from Anderson’s noisy attempts to climb, everything else was silent. There were no dogs, no vicious, snarling mouths seeking their throats. But Bess expected as much. Whorchals excelled at the element of surprise. They seldom used extensive security measures. Why go through all that when it was more fun to unnerve their prey with eerie silence?
“A little help.”
Bess rolled her eyes and backed up, offering her arm as Anderson unlatched himself from the branch that had caught his jacket. He toppled free and Bess had to hold him up so he wouldn’t fall on the well-manicured turf.
“Thanks,” Anderson said as he drew his gun again and eyed the big mansion.
Bess clamped off a sarcastic retort. As much as Anderson was a wrench in her plans, she was stuck with him, and she had to make sure he took part in the raid without getting either one of them killed. It would be a test of her skills as a trainer and leader.
There was a demand for more operatives in the field as fade rippers swarmed from the Fade in greater numbers. So, this was important work. She needed to rise to the occasion, to be better in God’s eyes. To not disappoint the ECC, her father, or her savior.
She studied the mansion’s squarish backside. Curtained windows. A small deck in the back with a grill Bess suspected was hardly ever used. Whorchals didn’t partake in such activities although their familiars might. It was to affect the appearance of normalcy, a front to cover the horrors inside.
Bess scanned the red brick but saw no easy way up. She’d normally scale the wall and enter through one of the higher windows, but with Anderson in tow, they’d have to take an easier route. The back door. Bess crouched low and climbed the short steps of the deck, stopping just in front of the door. She studied the deadbolt and the brass-plated lock beneath the knob. She shot Anderson a warning. “I’m serious about staying behind me. No tailgating, got it?”
“Yeah, got it. So, you have lock picks or—?”
Bess fired two shots, one into the deadbolt and one between the doorknob and the doorjamb, stepped back, and lunged forward, kicking the door with the flat of her boot.
"Shit,” Anderson said as the door flew inward.
Bess didn’t wait. She was inside, the nose of her MP5 whipping through the kitchen, pausing at the dark corners until her senses told her nothing lurked.
Bess scanned to the right, past a hallway, to settle on the kitchen’s pantry door. She closed her eyes, allowed her mind to fall into a meditative state, whispering, “Show me, Lord.”
Her godsight extended into the pantry, searching with invisible hands through the darkness. Her faith, a radar for detecting evil. It was something she’d picked up as a teen, an unexplainable power she no longer questioned.
The hair on the back of her neck rose.
There were things in the pantry. Dark, malicious spots waiting for her to pass so they could attack. Thoughts of violence radiated from behind the door.
It was like looking into a box of tumors.
She registered Anderson creeping into the kitchen and sliding over to the sink.
Bess lowered the nose of her weapon and reached inside her jacket, pulling out an oblong shape that fit in her palm. She pursed her lips and took three steps across the tile floor. There was no way to hide her approach and, frankly, she didn’t care. She flicked a tab on the object and grabbed the doorknob with her left hand. In one motion, she threw open the door and tossed the object inside, jerking the door shut even as she fell away.
In that brief moment between tossing the object and the door slamming, Bess caught the furtive, off guard movements of several things crouched in the enlarged pantry. A grunt. The flash of yellow eyes. Massive shoulders cringing to lunge.
The grenade exploded in a squelch of sound. Bess imagined silver shards flying in every direction, followed by a flash of ultraviolet light for those beasties sensitive to such things. Finally, crystallized holy water ripping through tough hide like slivers of glass.The wood shuddered but did not bow or break. Clipped yips sounded (one of them was Anderson’s) and then died just as fast. The stench of burnt hair wafted over them from beneath the door.
She expected Anderson to go into a fit of retching, but he kept his composure.
Silence fell over the kitchen. Bess pointed the nose of her weapon into the hallway. She shot a glance over her shoulder. Anderson was backed up against the sink, looking terrified. It was then she knew he’d never been near an infested house. Probably spent his life in vans watching OPs from monitors. Well, it was time to grow up.
“Clear that room.” She jerked her head at the pantry door.
“What the fuck? How did you know?”
Bess never discussed her godsight, and she wasn't about to start now. “Don't worry about how I knew. Clear it. Shoot anything that’s still alive, and do it quick. Can you do that?”
Anderson shook his head, eyes focusing as he held up his pistol. “Yeah. No problem.”
Bess stalked the creaking hardwood floors without another glance behind her. The operation was going well, all things considered. If Anderson did well enough on mop up duty, Bess might break her record for clearing a den of nasties. A small brag, to be sure, but it gave her hope.
In the foyer, the low ceiling broke upward. Bess hesitated, cast her eyes around to detect any movement above the unlit chandelier. On her right, a set of stairs wound upward. Past the stairs, the entrance to the sitting room. The dining room would be through the archway on her left.
She chose left.
In the dining room, she made for the curtained window, her senses alive with godsight. She cross-stepped while dragging the curtain behind her, dousing everything in morning light. Another reason she preferred doing this at dawn. Just knowing the sun was right there provided some comfort, considering how most fade rippers avoided it. Bess crouched, glancing beneath the dining room table, a thick oaken thing that could seat a dozen people.
She rose, eyes scanning. Chairs were unorganized, pulled back or turned sideways. Half-empty cups and chalices, their edges stained with dark liquid, rested on the table. A platter of something lumpy and smeared in red sauce sat in the center. Bess only needed a cursory glance to know it was a human corpse, or at least part of one. Her insides turned as she navigated carefully around the scene.
It wasn’t uncommon to find horrible messes in a whorchal’s lair. Grotesque displays of decadent debauchery, the evidence of some poor soul’s horror in the final moments of their life. Whorchals were the worst kind of ripper, never ceasing to amaze her with their creative cruelty.
That's why they needed to be destroyed.
An elegant, double-wide archway opened into the next hallway. Bess stopped at the threshold. She was about to check on Anderson when a shot rang out followed by another.
Bess’s lips pursed tight. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” Anderson’s voice was breathy but in control. “Just took care of a couple, uh, looks like hoarbeasts.”
Bess nodded inwardly. Anderson had the required level of violence needed to complete this mission. If he made it through this job with his arms, legs, and life intact, Bess would be sure to give him a good report.
“Good. I’m going to search the rooms back here. Secure the hall and wait for me in the foyer. Keep an eye on the stairs but don’t engage.”
Bess used her godsight as she moved, saying a quiet prayer in her head. Behold now, Thy servant hath found grace in Thy sight, and Thou hast magnified Thy mercy, which Thou hast shown unto me in saving my life.
Two bedrooms faced one another. The bathroom directly ahead. The doors were flung wide and Bess detected no shadows. Still, she had to clear the rooms. Sometimes human familiars lurked, and they weren’t always detectable with her godsight.
The bedroom on the left was messy. The bed unkempt. Clothes strung across the floor. Shoes tossed everywhere. The stale odor of old laundry and men’s body spray. It reminded her of the showers at the ECC Academy. A brush sat on a dresser, longish dark hairs captured in the bristles.
Bess caught an image of herself in the mirror. Her gun held steady as she made a tight circle of the room. Her body tense but not so much so that she couldn’t react quickly to a threat.
Her eyes stared back, flat and businesslike.
She turned away, exited this bedroom, and crossed to the next. A quick glance into the bathroom as she passed revealed dark streaks on the floor and walls.
While the first bedroom was disheveled, this second one was a canvas painted with gore.
Bess swallowed, struggling to stay cool as she stepped over the bottom half of someone’s leg and entered. Aside from the foregone limb, this corner of the room was clean. The walls were a faint shade of yellow, the floor bare of furniture or decor.
Near the window rested a mattress saturated with blood. Splatters and sprays of it arced to either side and up to the ceiling.
On the mattress, a corpse. Barely more than a chest cavity, part of the head, and hair scattered across the pillows. The only piece of furniture was a nightstand upon which rested a lamp and a bloody arm taken off at the elbow as if someone had plucked it off the torso and placed it there for later.
The stench was overpowering, and Bess swallowed dry and put a clamp on her revulsion. Resentment swelled in her gut, and then anger. Where doubt might have struck a weaker person, Bess used the scene to fuel her fury and faith.
This mutilated person had been someone’s son or daughter. Maybe had kids of their own. Maybe even church-going. To fall prey to such evil was unconscionable.
“Bastards,” she murmured, allowing the vision to burn itself into her brain. She’d remember it when she was blasting Krag full of lead.
Anderson’s voice hummed through her earpiece. “I’m going to check upstairs.”
Bess put her hand to the side of her head, turned away from the blood-soaked scene, and moved towards the hallway. “Do not, I repeat, do not go upstairs, Anderson.”
“It’s cool. I peeked into the lounge and we’re good there. Going to start on up. Meet you at the top.”
“Damn it, Anderson. You—” Bess decided to just shut up and get there. It would only take her handful seconds to reach the foyer, and then she’d drag his ass back down the steps. And then she’d throw his ass out of the house altogether and damn beating her record for cleaning a house. Damn any black marks. He’d disobeyed a direct order and could be stirring up a hornet's nest of unfriendly beasties.
Bess entered the dining room once again. She was about to hustle to the other side when her training took over and she stopped cold, drawing her senses around her once more, casting her godsight into the hallway and foyer beyond.
Don’t let Anderson’s stupidity become yours.
Bess took a breath, saying, “Show me, Lord,” as she exhaled.
She maneuvered around the table and ducked into the foyer.
Bess peered across into the lounge, spying two couches facing one another, the room decked out with stuff that looked as if it been bought at the local IKEA. The hall to the kitchen was still clear. No sounds, not even on the stairs which turned sharply at a ninety-degree angle after three short steps. She'd have to poke her head up there to see what lurked.
“Anderson?” she called up. It came out louder than she’d intended it, edged with a panic she resented at once. Much calmer, she repeated herself but did not receive a reply.
Bess put her foot on the first step when static burst through her ear piece, Anderson’s voice a hiss. “Shit. I think. Oh, crap. Something’s up here with me. Ah—”
Bess glared up the tight space, lips pursed, sweat running into her eyes. “Anderson, get your ass down here now. I mean, it. Get your ass—”
“Agh!” Anderson’s cry came through her earpiece and fell from the upstairs at the same time. Something shifted and thumped up there. A struggle. The sharp firecracker sound of a gunshot.
“Shit.” Bess lifted the nose of her MP5 and charged up the stairs without thinking, finger poised on the MP5’s trigger. Her senses were alive. No, on fire. Her teeth gritted as she moved up to the next landing toward the noisy, bumping tousling. At least there were still those sounds.
That meant Anderson was alive.
Near the top, it was dark, almost pitch black, and Bess cursed herself for not hitting the switch at the bottom. Only a thin swath of morning light cut through from somewhere above, a window on the wider landing. Not only was her partner potentially getting his guts ripped out, but she could mistake him for a nasty and fill him full of holes by accident.
Bess’s heart nearly leapt out of her throat when Anderson suddenly appeared at the top. Hair plastered with sweat, eyes wild with nervous fear, and his gun still tight in his hand. He was uninjured, not a speck of blood on him.
She relaxed her trigger finger. “Get behind me!”
But Anderson didn’t move. He leaned one arm against the wall and jerked his thumb back the way he’d come. “Hoarbeast almost got me but I blasted the sonuvabitch. Should have seen it—”
“I said get your ass behind me. I could've shot you, man!”
“Damn! My bad. But it’s up here. It's awesome.” A goofy grin spread across his face, adding another level of surrealism to the situation.
Bess shook her head. This dumb ass was trying to celebrate his first real kill in the middle of a house full of monsters that would be on them in a second! It had been a huge mistake bringing him, and Bess reached up to grab him by the jacket and throw him behind her.
Anderson’s eyes flashed past her so fast she might have missed it if her senses hadn’t been so heightened.
And that’s when Bess knew.
She’d been so focused on saving Anderson’s ass, she’d forgotten the other monsters her godsight couldn’t detect. The human ones.
Something jabbed through her jeans and into her calf. A wasp sting.
Bess spun and faced a thin, dark-haired dude who had been crawling up the stairs behind her. He let go of the hypodermic needle he’d just stuck in her leg and backed away, fear lighting his eyes.
“Sorry,” he said before Bess lifted her boot and planted it squarely in his face with a crunch, sending him sliding and tumbling back down the stairs.
Her instincts about Anderson had been right. Something wrong with the guy since she’d picked him up at the rest stop earlier that day.
She rounded on him, MP5 pointed at the landing above, intent on spraying the asshole full of holes.
But he was gone.
Dizziness hit her like a sack of bricks. She stumbled up the stairs, clutching the rail with her left hand to steady herself. Absently, she reached back and plucked the half-filled syringe from her calf. Tried to imagine what the sloshing liquid could be. Didn’t matter. Whatever it was worked fast. Bess’s ears rang. The numbers on the tube blurred, her head and shoulders growing heavy with drowsiness.
Bess tossed the needle with a grimace.
“Asshole!” she shouted, but her voice was a croak, hardly words. She thought she heard a satisfied chuckle from above followed by the snickers of other things far less human.
But where? Right or left?
She pulled the MP5’s trigger as she started up the last few steps, tugging off several three-round bursts from left to right and then back again.
She’d go right. Yes, that’s where Anderson had disappeared. That’s where he might be right now, waiting for Bess to fall.
She leaned forward, spraying bullets left to shred anyone who might be lurking there, rounds taking off pieces of the corner and sending plaster and hot casings leaping everywhere. She fell left against the rail, sprayed three more bursts in the opposite direction. The stock kicked against her shoulder. She bit sandpaper between her teeth.
The MP5 was all the power she had left in this world.
One more step and she arrived at the top where she tried to assume an assault stance as she lit up the empty hallway, but her legs betrayed her.
Bess dropped to her knees.
She had no idea how many rounds she’d fired, but at some point her gun stopped sputtering even though the echoes of those vibrations carried through her arms and shoulders like the ghost of an earthquake. The air was rife with plaster dust and the sickening scent of old death, corpses up here a long time. Bess’s nose was full of it, her body gone hot and drippy.
Head nodding, the MP5 slipped from her grip and hung uselessly.
A dark shadow stepped into the hall. A huge, wide, and ominous presence that should have sent a shock of fear through her. But in her drugged-out state, she felt only a vague sense of danger, a vague rage that she’d been made a fool of by some smarmy asshole who’d gained an iota of her trust.
Bess chuckled inwardly thinking of the black mark they’d put on her ECC record. No, it would be more than a black mark. The record would read “deceased.”
A gentle hand settled on her shoulder, and Bess slept.