The Shanghai Songbird Part 5

A volley of shots rang out. A fiery hammer slammed into Lee’s abdomen. He coughed, going straight down. His vision blurred, his chest burned, wet heat squirted out of the wound. He saw the Songbird turn and run. He raised the Nambu and fired.

Missed.

She pointed her weapon over her shoulder and squeezed off a couple of rounds. A bullet slapped the sidewalk next to Lee’s face. Flinching, Lee pointed at her and pressed the trigger.

Nothing.

No more ammo.

The woman tottered over to her car. Swearing, Lee released the empty gun and tried to get up. But his torso ignited in firestorm of pain and forced him down.

“Hey…”

Lee looked to his right. Wong was on his back, trying to plug a hole in his throat with his left hand. With his right, he held out his Colt.

“Take…” Wong whispered.

Lee reached out. Grabbed the weapon. Propped himself up.

Ouyang was rounding the bonnet of her car, going for the driver’s seat. In the dim glow of the streetlight he could just about see her face framed in the car window.

He aimed. Almost shouted a warning. Then he remembered that he wasn’t a cop anymore, and this was Shanghai.

He fired. Again and again and again, the muzzle flash stealing his sight and the sharp flat report robbing his hearing. He fired and fired and fired until the Colt went dry.

He squinted, trying see past the purple spots in his sight. The window glass had been shattered. No sign of the Songbird. Grunting, he pushed himself up, pushing past the pain in his torso, and shuffled to the car.

She lay spread-eagle on the road, a dark pool blooming from her head. She was beautiful, once, before glass shrapnel shredded her face. She was still breathing, barely, and in the darkness he couldn’t see her wound. If any. He kicked the pistol out of her hand. A wet gurgle escaped her mouth, overcome by a torrent of blood. She looked at him, parted her lips, exhaled, and died.

The last of Lee’s strength bled dry. The Colt slipped from his hand and bounced off the road. He dropped to his ass, dimly aware of his hands and feet rapidly going cold. Every breath filled him with pain. He held his hand to his wound, trying and failing to hold back the surge of blood.

In the distance, police whistles blew. The police was finally, finally, coming, certain now that they wouldn’t be wandering into the middle of a gangland gunfight. In his blurring vision, he thought he saw a squad of uniformed policemen running down the road.

Who were they? Japanese? Chinese? Or—

“Shanghai Municipal Police!” a cop yelled.

In English.

Lee smiled.

****
The next few hours passed in a blurry haze. He remembered the searing pain as the British policemen hauled him to safety, the ambulance ride at breakneck speeds, the muttering of nurses and doctors as they prepared him for surgery.

When Lee was capable of conscious thought, it was daylight. He squinted against the morning sun streaming in through the window. He was lying on a stiff mattress, covered in a plain white sheet. His abs ached, but not as much as when he’d been shot.

He hazarded a look around. He was in a twelve-man ward. A quarter of the beds were empty. The other bed was filled with hard men with harder eyes. Tattoos of dragons, gods and Buddhas covered their arms and necks and faces. Some of them chatted with each other amicably, while the others studiously ignored everyone else.

A nurse looked up from her desk. Smiling, she strode over to Lee.

“You’re awake,” she said.

Lee nodded. “Where am I?”

“Shanghai General Hospital.” She consulted her clipboard. “You were admitted about six hours ago, and underwent emergency surgery for a gunshot wound to the abdomen. You seem to be doing well. The doctor will give you a more detailed diagnosis when he makes his rounds.”

As the nurse examined him, Lee spotted a quintet of men strolling into the room. Four men protecting a fifth. The other patients straightened and called out greetings to the last man, or pointedly looked away and said nothing. The nurse glanced at him and continued working in silence, taking a couple of minutes longer than necessary.

Finally, the nurse retreated to her desk. The newcomers approached Lee’s bed.

“Mr Lee,” Tang said. “Not dead yet, I see.”

“Mr Tang,” Lee said. “I’d shake your hand, but I’ve been advised to remain lying on my back.”

Tang smiled mirthlessly. “I heard what happened last night. It wasn’t an ideal outcome, but the situation was resolved. Thank you for your hard work.”

“Don’t mention it. Have you seen Sergeant Wong?”

“I heard he’s three doors down. With the rest of his police friends.”

Shanghai was a dangerous place for police. Hospitals were supposed to be neutral ground, but there was too much blood spilt on too many streets for the police to rely on the honour of thieves.

“I appreciate you coming to visit me,” Lee said.

Tang shrugged. “I had business here.”

“Ah. So, what happens next?”

“Mr Lee, you did us a great service. You need not worry about your medical fees. And, we will double the fee Ms Ouyang promised you.”

“It is generous of you.”

“It is nothing. Incidentally, my group is always looking for good men…”

Lee laughed. Once. Then the pain in his belly forced him to stop.

Tang chuckled. “You’re not a policeman any more, Mr Lee. If the Japanese dogs learn what you did, you’ll need protection.”

“I’ll consider your offer.”

“I’m sure you will.”

The gangsters left as suddenly as they had come. Lee shifted around on his bed, making himself comfortable.

The Dragon Head was right. Someday there might be a reckoning with the Japanese. Someday the police or the triads might turn on him. Someday, he might find that there was no room in Shanghai for a mixed-blood man mixed up in crime and espionage.

But for now, he could rest.

The End


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Previous parts: 1234

Thanks for reading The Shanghai Songbird. If you’d like more long form fiction, look out for my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

The Shanghai Songbird Part 4

“I’m still not giving you a gun,” Wong said.

Lee blew on his cold hands. “I didn’t ask for one.”

“I can hear the thought in your head.”

“Hey, we’re just seeing who shows up tonight. No need for shooting, right?”

Wong grunted sullenly.

Recruiting Wong had been simple enough. Lee simply waited outside his tiny apartment until Wong came home. A heated discussion followed indoors, but both men knew of Tang’s reputation. It was technically a matter for Special Branch, but by the time they were done arguing it was too late to contact Special Branch.

Besides, it was a surveillance job, plain and simple. They could do it just as well as the spycatchers.

They stayed in the dark inside Wong’s cramped car for the next two hours, unblinking and unmoving in the shadows, shifting only to duck under headlights of the occasional passing car.

At three minutes to four a dark saloon car circled around the block once, then parked opposite the club. Two men jumped out and headed to the door. The one in the lead rapped the door twice, then twice more. The door opened and both entered.

“They look Japanese to you?” Wong whispered.

“Can’t tell. It’s too dark,” Lee replied.

“We need to get the license plate number.”

“I’ll go. You keep an eye out.”

Lee scanned the shadow-shrouded streets and, satisfied there were no watchers, exited the car. Sauntering up to the Fiat, he slipped out his matchbook and struck a match, cupping the naked flame with his other hand.

And swore softly to himself.

Japanese diplomatic plates.

He read the numbers thrice, burning them into his brain. Extinguishing the match, he dropped the stub into a pocket and turned around.

Right into the muzzle of a gun.

“Hands up,” the gunman said in Japanese-accented Chinese.

Lee complied, leaning ever so slightly forward, taking a very small step towards the man.

“Who are you?” the Japanese asked.

Lee flicked his eyes from left to right. Behind the gunman was a deeper shadow near the car.

“Nobody, Lee said. “I just –”

BANG! BANG BANG BANG!

Glass shattered. The Japanese startled. Lee leapt in, circling his left arm to lock up the gun arm in his armpit, and blasted his right palm up into the man’s face. The blow almost bowled the man over. The Japanese jerked convulsively. The gun fired. Lee slammed another palm into the gunman’s face and simultaneously kneed him in the groin.

The Japanese fell over, slamming into the bonnet of a nearby car. Lee clenched his fist and hammered the man’s chest. The Japanese replied with a hard knife-hand block, just enough power to swipe his arm out of the way. The gunman flowed into a punch, just as Lee stomped hard on the man’s exposed foot. The punch, powered only by the shoulder, bounced off Lee’s forehead. The stomp crunched something. The Japanese screamed, sliding down the car. Lee grabbed the man’s skull and pounded it against the bonnet and bumper.

The Japanese went still. Lee stepped aside, stripped the gun and aimed it at the former threat. The Japanese remained still. Lee looked around and heard footsteps pounding up to him.

“Lee!” Wong shouted. “Are you okay?”

Lee looked over his shoulder and patted himself down.

“I’m good. What the hell happened?” Lee demanded.

“Bodyguards. Two of them. They were parked down the street behind us. When you went up to read the plate they came up to the car. One talked to me while the other went to you.”

“You shot your guy?”

He held up his smoking handgun, reloading with a fresh magazine. “Yeah. He won’t be a problem now. We need to go in and arrest the suspects before they can escape.”

“You get the front door. I’ll go around the back.”

Lee scurried down a nearby alley, which wrapped around to the rear of the club. Along the way he inspected the unfamiliar gun in his hand. It was a Japanese Nambu, a long, exposed snout of a barrel, a trigger, a handle and that was all he recognised. Lee remembered the weapon had an eight-round magazine, and since it fired earlier the safety was probably off. He wished for the Colt 1908 he’d trained on, but this was the gun he had.

Down the alley, he turned left, and in the pale moonlight saw four people scurry out the back of the club.

“Police! Stop!” Lee yelled.

“RUN!” a man shouted.

Two of them peeled away and raised gleaming objects in their hands. Lee ducked back just as a volley of shots rang out. The shooters were panicking, burning through their magazines as fast as they could fire. Lee flinched as clouds of brick dust peppered his face. When the shooting stopped he popped back out.

The two shooters were running down the alley, hurrying for cover. Lee pointed the Nambu at the nearer one’s centre of mass and pressed the trigger.

The muzzle blast stole his sight and flooded his ears. Wincing, Lee pointed at the other one but saw only a purple splotch. He fired anyway, and the brief sun illuminated two men stillon their feet. He blasted away, burning through half his magazine, before the men decided to drop.

“Run!” a woman shouted. “They’re coming! RUN!”

Two figures popped out of a nearby doorway, rushing for the mouth of the alley. One was smaller and slower, high heels clicking against the road. Lee sprinted in pursuit. As the leading figure turned a corner, the woman tripped, falling heavily to the road.

She cursed loudly in Japanese. A man replied in the same language. Lee readied his Nambu and turned the corner, coming face-to-face with the man.

“STOP! DON’T MOVE!” Lee yelled in Mandarin.

“Damn you!” the man cursed, in Shanghainese.

The figure leapt at Lee. Lee fired. The body slammed into him. The attacker screamed like a wildcat, flailing and clawing. Scrabbling with fingers and feet, Lee found the man’s shoulder and foot. Seizing it, he pulled the man down and swept out his leg, driving him into the sidewalk. Lee stomped the man in the head, and he went still.

Lee turned his attention to the woman. She was picking herself up, backing away from him.

“Ms. Ouyang?” Lee wheezed. He held his pistol low by his hip, unwilling to let her see his trembling arm. How many shots had he fired? Six? Seven? Was his gun empty?

“Mr. Lee,” she replied. She stood to her full height, bringing her handbag in front of her.

“Those men in the alleyway were Japanese.”

She stared at him in the eye. “Yes.”

Lee jerked his head at the man he’d thrown.

“That guy’s a collaborator?”

“He was my lover.”

Lee shrugged. Who knew what was in a woman’s heart? “Answer the question. Was he a collaborator?”

“Yes.”

“Your handler? Your local contact?”

She shrugged sullenly. “He was more than that…but yes. He was.”

“So, the rumours of you working with the Japanese are true.”

“Yes. What are you going to do about it?”

She clutched her handbag protectively.

“I’m just trying to learn the truth. You sent me to Tang to die, didn’t you? I mean, what kind of idiot in this city would just walk up to a triad and demand answers?”

“How did you survive?” She chuckled, shook his head. “How did he survive?”

“He gave me a way to find the truth. Too bad nobody told you about our history.”

She sighed, cursing. “I forgot. You had a reputation for fairness. Even towards the triads.” She shrugged and added, “What’s next? Are you’re going to hand me to Special Branch?”

Lee shrugged too. “Tell me, why did you collaborate with the Japanese?”

“I didn’t. I am Japanese.”

Lee blinked. “What?”

“I was born on the streets of Tsingtao. During the Great War, when the Japanese defeated the Germans, a Japanese soldier found me and brought me home to Tokyo. He raised me as his own daughter. The Genyosha recruited me at eighteen and sent me here, to Shanghai.”

“To make friends and influence people?”

“Yes.”

“You would betray your homeland? Betray your people?”

Her voice turned cold and flinty. “I am Japanese. And, there are more Japanese in Shanghai than any other foreign power. In a few more years, Shanghai might as well be Japanese too. I’m just speeding things along.”

“Lee!” Wong shouted, well behind him.

“I’m here!” Lee yelled back, keeping his gun on her.

Wong ran up, halting next to Lee.

“Caged the Songbird, eh, Lee?” Wong remarked.

“I guess I can’t persuade you to let me go,” Ouyang said. “I know your type too well.”

“If you come in quietly,” Wong said, “we can work out a deal.”

She sighed. “Well, boys, you caught me.”

“Put the bag down,” Wong said.

Crouching, she slowly placed the bag on the ground. Lee blinked hard, trying to peer through the spots dancing in his vision, but did her hand just reach inside…?

Lee extended his pistol. “Drop the bag!”

She dropped the bag.

Stood.

Fired.

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Previous parts: 123

For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check our my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

The Shanghai Songbird Part 3

Picking Tang out was easy. He was the only customer in the teahouse with a contingent of heavily-muscled goons. They strolled in with the self-assurance of tigers, and the other customers either greeted them or looked down into their cups.

Tang and three men entered the sole private room in the teahouse. The remaining four gangsters stood watch outside.
Lee took a final sip of tea. He’d been sitting here since the teahouse opened this morning. It had only been two days after the shooting, but if the gangsters had wanted him dead they’d have done something about him. That meant they weren’t opposed to talking.

Probably.

Slowly, he stood up and approached Tang’s room. Five steps later the four bodyguards barred his way.

“I wish to see your Dragon Head,” Lee said.

The gangster sneered, exposing a mouthful of rotted teeth. “He’s busy. Get lost.”

“I have business with him.”

“I don’t recognize you, and you’re disturbing us. Get out. Now.” The four gangsters crowded around Lee, placing hands on hips or hidden weapons.

“Tell him I’m—”

“I want to see him,” Tang interrupted.

The gangster looked into the room. “Boss? I—”

“I want to see him.” Tang’s tone was cold and flat.

The gangsters parted as quickly as they came. Tang, stroking his long thick beard, gestured at an empty chair on his left.

“Detective Lee,” Tang said. “It’s been too long. Come, sit. Would you like some tea?”

Lee obeyed. They must have been expecting him. The three other senior triad members around the table fixed burning gazes on him.

“Thank you for seeing me. I’m not a detective any more, and I won’t take up much of your time,” Lee said.

Tang poured Lee a glass of steaming amber tea. “You never came to me without good reason. Why are you here?”

Lee accepted the tea. “I want to apologize. What happened to your man, to Lin Da Hai, was an accident. I’m sorry for killing him.”

A sigh poured from Tang’s heart. “Ah, Lin Da Hai. He was always…brash. Overly eager.”

“I understand his funeral will be held soon.”

“Yes. Next Tuesday, in fact.”

“I have prepared baijin for him. It’s in my left pants pocket.”

Baijin was a cash contribution meant to help the family of the bereaved. Lee had filled his envelope with more than enough money to communicate his real intent.

“I will pass it to his family,” Tang said.

“You are truly a generous man,” Lee replied.

Lee slowly and carefully reached into his pants pocket, removing a white envelope, letting the triad men know he wasn’t pulling a weapon. He handed the envelope to Tang with two hands, who in turn handed it to another gangster. The blood money disappeared under a jacket.

“Mr. Tang, I have a question for you,” Lee said.

“Speak.”

“Was Mr. Lin working for you at the time of his death?”

Tang laughed, and the other gangsters joined in. Lee said nothing.

Finally, the Dragon Head said, “I heard the Shanghai Songbird hired you.”

“I was hired to find the truth.”

“Mr. Lee, this is Shanghai. Everybody lies.”

“Yes. And what you don’t know will kill you.”

Tang nodded slowly. He stared into space for a moment, as though in deep contemplation. Eventually, he said, “A man like you would have heard the rumors about Ms. Ouyang.”

“I heard she’s working for the Japanese.”

“That’s correct.”

“How do you know?”

Tang laughed.

“Never mind,” Lee said.

“My friend, let me ask you something. Why do the foreigners want to hold on to the Shanghai International Settlement?”

“Money. National prestige. Because the Chinese can’t take it back.”

“Exactly. But are they willing to go to war over it?”

“Only with the Chinese.”

A waitress arrived, setting plates of dim sum around the table. Tang deftly snatched up a small xiaolongbao with his chopsticks, brought it to his mouth and bit it in half. Tilting his head back, he gulped down the broth within the bun, and took his time masticating the rest of the bao.

Finally, Tang looked back at Lee and spoke.

“Everybody knows that China is the sick man of Asia, and recognizes Japan as an equal of the European powers. Everybody wants to bully China, but nobody dares to provoke the Japanese.”

Lee sipped his tea. He knew how the old man’s mind worked. He’d get to the point. Eventually.

“The Japanese dogs conquered Manchuria, and after the January 28 Incident, they forced our Army out of Shanghai. They want to be the lord of all China, and the Westerners don’t want to fight a war with an equal power. But some of them are wary of Japanese ambitions. Including Special Branch.”

Lee set his tea down. “Special Branch approached you for assistance?”

“Special Branch is busy chasing communist spies. Communists are an easy target; only the Russians complain when their spies are arrested. But Japanese? The British don’t want to make noise, not yet, and it’s becoming dangerous for Westerners to wander outside the International Settlement. But if a high-profile nightclub singer were shot by an obsessed fan…”

“Everybody knows Shanghai is the whore of the Orient. People expect the police to close both eyes when the triads are involved.”

“You said it. Not me.”

“I need proof that she’s working for the Japanese.”

“Mr Lee, we can resolve the matter ourselves.”

“Mr. Tang, when I quit the Municipal Police, I only gave up my badge.”

Both men exchanged a long moment of silence.

Finally, Tang said, “Go to the Night Orchard at four a.m. See who shows up.”

Finishing his tea, Lee bowed and stood. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. If you find yourself in a situation to handle this incident…we will be thankful.”

There it was, the payment the triads demanded for this information.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Lee said.


Cheah Git San Red.jpg

For more long form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

The Shanghai Songbird Part 2

There was just enough light inside the nightclub to see the stage and nowhere enough to peer into the hearts of men. Lee placed a tiny mirror on the table, no larger than a compact makeup case, trying to make the best of the dim candlelight behind him.

Wong didn’t mind. But in their corner booth, the policeman had a good view of the door. Lee was facing the wrong way, by choice. Shanghai might be an international city but mixed bloods always drew attention. Better if people didn’t see his face.

At exactly nine in the evening Ouyang Li Yan took to the stage. Her sheer golden cheongsam glittered under the spotlights, its long slits showing off longer legs. She held her head high, regally poised on delicate high heels. Her eyes swept the crowd and landed on Lee’s. She smiled, a blazing sun just for him, and caressed her microphone with a gloved hand.

On an unseen signal, the band played. Matching her voice with the deep saxophone, she sang in English.

I knew a boy who loved to play hero / Of his flaws I knew exactly zero / But there’s one thing about him I know / To a beautiful face he’d never say no

Wong nudged Lee’s foot under the table. “I think I see the stalker.”

Lee looked at the mirror. “Who?”

“At the door. Huge Chinese guy in the cheap brown suit and tattoo on his neck.”

Lee adjusted his mirror just so, tracking the suspect. The guy was alone, staring on the singer. He loomed tall over the other patrons, taller than even the Westerners. His eyebrows were a thick dark line of hair. There was a black splotch covering his neck—it was too dark to make out what it was. He plopped down in a corner and ordered a bottle of baijiu, potent grain liquor.

Just before Ouyang had left his office, she had told him what the stalker looked like. This man seemed to fit the bill. Lee kept an eye on the mirror and an ear on the singer. She switched to Japanese for her next song, then Shanghainese. The suspect poured a cup of baijiu and carefully sipped at it. That or he was just pretending to drink it.

Ouyang worked the stage, fluidly switching languages and pitches. The man stayed rock-still, drinking mechanically. Lee cast his eye over the audience every now and then, but he didn’t see anyone else who matched the description she gave him.

When Ouyang finished her last song and went backstage, the man in the cheap suit sprang to life. He downed what was left in his cup and paid the bill. He tapped his foot repeatedly.

Ouyang reappeared, dressed in a green shawl and matching cheongsam. Audience members surged forward to greet her. The man in the suit got up, digging his hands into his pockets. Lee got up and followed.

“He’s trying something,” Lee said. “Let’s go.”

The man in the suit made his way through the crowd, shoving people out of the way. Lee worked a different tack, slipping through holes that formed in front of him, firmly pushing only when he had to, while keeping an eye on the back of the man’s head. The man jostled his way to the front, ignoring Lee as he slid in just behind him, stopping right in front of Ouyang.

The man whispered something. A woman shouted at Lee, drowning out what he said.

Ouyang’s face paled, her mouth opening ever so slightly.

The man’s right hand rose from his pocket, revealing a handgun.

Lee slipped in, seized the weapon in both hands, and wrested it up. The man pulled the trigger, and the pistol discharged harmlessly into the ceiling.

Lee startled. The crowd dissolved into shrieks and screams. The man resisted, trying to force his arm back down. Lee wrestled with him, keeping the gun pointed high, and the stalker fired once more. Out the corner of his eye, Lee saw the civilians ducking and running. Lee lashed out with his knee, connecting with the man’s thigh. The gunman’s stance crumbled. Grabbing the shooter’s wrist with his right hand, Lee twisted into him, taking him off balance—

BANG

—the body slammed to the ground. Lee pried the pistol out of unresisting hands and pointed it at the man’s chest.

Blood oozed out of the entry wound. Claret mixed with gray and white matter on the floor. The man’s eyes bulged out of his head. The world smelled of death and gunpowder and fresh soap. The body twitched and jerked erratically. Lee scanned the crowd and saw them retreat before him.

Wong caught up, badge in one hand and handgun in the other.

“He’s dead,” Lee pronounced.

The detective leaned over and felt for a pulse.

“He’s dead,” Wong confirmed.

Ouyang tottered over to Lee, clinging to his left arm.

“Oh my God,” she said. “He was…I was…are you…”

“I’m okay. Are you hurt?”

“No, no.” She sniffled. “I’m okay. I’m…I thought, I thought you were…”

Lowering the pistol, Lee held her close. “I’m fine.”

“Thank you. I’m so… thankful.”

She sobbed softly into his neck. Her breath warmed his neck, his ear, his cheek.

“Ahem,” Wong said.

Lee let her go.

Wong held out his hand. “I need the weapon.”

Lee inspected the gun. A Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless. Pointing it to at the ground, he ejected the magazine with and racked the slide. A shiny bullet spun out of the ejection port, bouncing off against the floor. Lee reversed his grip and handed the pistol to the cop butt-first.

“I’m going to call for backup,” Wong said. “Do you need a doctor?”

Ouyang shook her head. “I’m fine. We’re fine.”

“Lee, I’m going to need your statement.”

Lee sighed. “Let’s wait until we get to the station.”

Wong nodded. “You two stay here and don’t touch anything.”

“Understood,” Lee said.

She held him again. They stayed that way until uniformed patrolmen flooded the club.

***
“Good news is, we’re ruling it self-defence,” Wong said. “Clearly a tragic accident by someone who had it coming. You’re free to go.”

Lee rapped his fingers against the heavy wooden table. In the interview room, it was just him and Wong and four silent walls.

“That means there’s bad news.”

“The dead man is Lin Da Hai. Triad. Hatchet man for Tang Zhong Sheng. You remember him, he’s the Dragon Head who owns a fifth of the city.”

Lee remembered. During his time in the Reserve Unit he’d clashed with Tang’s triad more than a few times.

“Did Tang send Lin after the girl?”

Another, more pronounced shrug.

“You don’t know, or you don’t want to know?”

“It doesn’t matter. Your work is done. The stalker is dead. Case closed.”

“Really? Work with me here. That guy looked like a crazy fan to you? What kind of obsessed idiot follows a woman around, does his damnedest to avoid being noticed, doesn’t even try to contact her, just tries to shoot her?” He leaned forward. “That’s not a stalker. That’s a killer.”

Wong’s face hardened to stone. “Leave this alone. This is police business now.”

“I never thought you’d leave a case alone.”

“You were a great detective, Lee. One of the best. But you’re out now. And we’re dealing with triads. Tang may hesitate to send a hatchet man after me. But you don’t have a badge or uniform anymore. It’s done. Get on with your life.”

The man exchanged icy glares over a rocky abyss. A lifetime later, Lee slapped his palms on the table and stood.

“I’m leaving,” Lee said.

“An excellent decision,” Wong replied.

Wong escorted Lee out. The detective saw the civilian all the way to the evidence room, lingering long enough for Lee to gather his things, and disappeared, leaving Lee to head out by his lonesome.

She was waiting in the lobby, a hat pulled low over her head. Looking up, she smiled at his arrival.

“Hey,” she said. “Are you okay?”

“Been better. You were waiting for me?”

“I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

They left the polite fiction at that. Walking her to the door, the wet heat of a Shanghai summer slammed into his face.
“What are you going to do now?” she asked.

He exhaled sharply, briefly forgetting he wasn’t expelling a lungful of hot smoke. And abruptly grinned at her. “Where should I send the invoice to?”

She laughed. “You’ve prepared one?”

“It’s at my office.”

She brushed her arm lightly against his side. “Let’s go. You can hand it to me there.”

Neither of them owned a car. They settled for walking to the nearest tram station. With the hat she wore, no makeup, flat shoes, she was no longer the Shanghai Songbird, just another pretty face in the crowd. People paid more attention to Lee, if only to decide where he fit on the East-West spectrum. He kept his head down, watching for passers-by and stray garbage, until a thought hammered his brain.

“What did he say?” Lee asked.

“Who?” Ouyang answered.

“The shooter. He said something to you. What was it?”

“I…the police didn’t tell you?”

“They said it was none of my business. What did he say to you?”

“He said…he said, ‘Mr. Tang sends his regards.’”

“You know this Tang guy?”

She bit her lip. “Tang Zhong Sheng.”

“The triad Dragon Head.”

“Yes. The Commissioner was…very interested in going after him.”

“And now Tang is very interested in going after you.”

“Yes.” She shuddered. “I don’t…I don’t think this is over. I don’t feel safe. The Commissioner doesn’t want to protect me, but Tang…”

“Do you know where I can find him?”

It was meant to be a rhetorical question, but Lee caught Ouyang’s eyes narrow ever so slightly.

“What are you going to do?”

“Talk to him.”

“Talk to him? Really, Mr. Lee? That’s all you’re going to do?”

He laughed. “I don’t know what you’ve been told, but many problems can be solved simply by talking to the right people the right way.”

She looked skeptically at him. “Well, the Commissioner used to talk a lot about Tang. He told me once Tang liked to have breakfast at the teahouse on Fangbang Road.”

“Thanks.” He chuckled. “Guess I have to hold on to that invoice.”

She pouted. “Going to charge me extra, huh?”

“Just seeing this case through to the end.”

Cheah Git San Red.jpg

For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

The Shanghai Songbird Part 1

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Thomas Lee had read too many Western pulps to know how this would end.

“Miss Ouyang,” he said, “I sympathise with your situation. I really do. But this looks like a job for the police.”

Ouyang Li Yan didn’t frown. She was too glamorous for that. Her face melted under her thin mask of mascara and rouge, her eyes widened, and her full, luscious lips opened just so. She bit her lower lip, and shook her head.

“I tried. They just laughed at me. You know what they said? ‘A pretty woman like you will always have dashing young men throwing themselves at you.’”

He snorted, tapping his burned-out cigarette into a cheap glass ashtray. “I heard you’re…close…to the Commissioner.”

She smiled at his almost-feigned delicateness. “We used to be.”

Amazing. The gossip rags were on the money this time. “That’s a shame. But you’re a well-known woman in this city, Miss Ouyang. Someone in the force would want to help—”

Another, firmer, shake of the head. A sad, bitter chuckle. “Mr. Lee, this is Shanghai. There’s no police here. Just crooks or killers in khaki.”

“I know a few honest cops.”

She leaned forward. Lee studiously kept his eyes on hers and not the front of her low-cut Western dress.

“You’re…different, Mr. Lee. You have a reputation.”

“For what?”

“Fairness. When you were still a cop, you treated everybody fairly.”

He laughed. With a face like his, parents like his, being fair to everyone was the only choice he had. But he didn’t feel inclined to tell her that. “That’s it?”

“It’s more than enough for me.”

Lee spread his hands out, engulfing his sad little empire. A worn-down, eighth-hand desk bought cheap and held together by sheer stubbornness. A grimy telephone that worked if the Buddha willed it. A ratty couch older than Lee and Ouyang combined. A small bin overflowing with trash, and filing cabinets filled only with air.

“A reputation is fine, but see how well that worked out for me. I don’t need any trouble. For the kind of work you need, you should hire someone more well-established.”

“Someone more well-established?”

“Someone who can afford the necessary bribes.”

She folded her arms, pouting. “I don’t see a need for bribes. Just warn off the stalker and make sure he doesn’t do anything.”

“Assuming he’s a stalker,” Lee said.

“What else do you call a man who keeps following me around?”

“As you said, he hasn’t actually contacted you. No letters, no face-to-face conversation, all he’s done is show up at your gigs. Maybe he’s just a dedicated fan.”

“He’s not!” she protested hotly. “I saw him trying to follow me home after I left the club! Once I had to lead him all the way to the police station before he left me alone! You’re telling me he’s not a stalker?”

You should have told me that earlier, Lee thought. Out loud, he said, “Fine. But what if he won’t be warned off? Only other thing I can do is to inform the police, and if you know my rep, you know why I’m not a cop any more.”

Ouyang calmed in an instant. The fire died, replaced by an icy mien.

“You don’t have to get the police involved.”

“You want me to do something else.”

“Exactly.” She dropped her voice an octave. “You have a reputation for doing the right thing. The hard thing.”

“You want me to kill him?”

Her eyes were soft chocolate floating in milk. “I didn’t say that. I just want you to do what you have to do. I’ll be very grateful.”

Lee sighed. People like her, the Beautiful People, never needed to get their hands dirty. They could always hire someone like him to do it. Without hands-on experience, they’d never know the real cost of what they were really asking.

But if a man wants to climb out of the gutter, he has to work.

How grateful?”

She looked him up and down, leaned back a bit. “One month’s pay, for one night’s work. Sounds fair, doesn’t it?”

“Very fair.”

She flashed a mouthful of perfect white teeth. “Thank you. And when this is over…maybe we could have a drink someday.”

“Maybe,” he allowed.

**

“She’s dynamite,” the detective said.

“She’s a paycheck I can’t turn down,” the private detective said.

Sergeant Wong Jie sighed, mopping at his brow. The slow rotating fan overhead did nothing to dispel the wet heat of the summer day. “You’ve never met a damsel you could ignore.”

Lee shrugged broadly. “You draw a salary. I don’t.”

“You’re a mercenary now? Don’t make me look too deeply into your bank account. Your otherone at the Bank of Yokohama.”

Lee reached into his breast pocket and tapped out a cigarette. From his pants pocket he drew a book of matches. Slowly, almost casually, he lit a match and touched it to the coffin nail. He inhaled deep, let the fire touch his lungs, and breathed out an ephemeral gray cloud.

“Good luck asking the Japanese to open up,” he said finally. “But we’re not here to talk about them.”

Three rapid bangs filtered in through the office window. Both men looked out. Only the tourists were running on the streets. The locals and long-time foreigners were walking nonchalantly. Wong sighed, returning to his chair.

“We are talking about the Japanese,” Wong said. “Miss Ouyang works at the Night Orchard nightclub. The Japanese run the joint.”

“That doesn’t mean anything. After the Chinese, the Japanese make up the largest percentage of the population.”

“Miss Ouyang is a high society girl. She’s been seen with businessmen, military officers, politicians, and lately the Commissioner. And a lot of Japanese.”

“Is she a spy?”

Wong sighed. “Won’t be the first time the Japanese used a pretty woman as a spy.”

Is she a spy?”

“I chase triads. Not spies.” He opened his desk drawer and brought a cigarette of his own to his lips. He lit it with a cheap metal lighter and took a couple of exploratory puffs. “Espionage is the business of Special Branch.”

“In other words, the British.”

“Yes.”

“What do they say about her?”

“They don’t talk to us. They are spycatchers. They see themselves a higher class of cop. Damn foreigners. Well. Not including you.”

Lee tapped out the cigarette butt into the mountain of ash that threatened to spill out of the detective’s ash tray. “Hey, I’m not my father, and he was all right.”

“But you took your mother’s name anyway.”

“Sergeant, this is Shanghai.”

“True enough.”

Both men smoked in companionable silence. Eventually, Lee said, “I’m going to go to her club tonight, see if her suitor will be there.”

“You’re playing with fire.” He chuckled. “But then, when has that ever stopped you?”

“Maybe it’s nothing. Just some crazy boy with half a brain. But if the Japanese are involved here…”

“It’s your problem. I’m just a humble policeman.”

Wong chuckled. So did Lee.

“I would be grateful if I had backup,” Lee said.

Wong chewed on the cigarette, scowling. He rolled the cigarette from the left side of his mouth to the right and back again. Lee just watched.

Finally, Wong sighed. “Aiyah. I don’t have anything better to do tonight anyway.”

“I need a gun, too.”

Now you’re pushing things.”

“Please? For old time’s sake?”

Wong guffawed, almost spitting out the cigarette.

“You’re a civilian. I can’t go handing out guns willy-nilly,” Wong said.

Lee revealed a smile of yellowed teeth. “Hey, I’m not a triad. You can trust me, right?”

Wong shook his head. “It’s not that I don’t trust you. I have to account for all the weapons here, and you don’t have a lot of friends in the police.”

“The stalker might have friends.”

“You don’t know that.” Wong extinguished his cigarette. “Look, what you did to Inspector Han—”

Former Inspector.”

“Former Inspector Han. Fine. That Japanese lapdog got what was coming to him. But the Japanese still have friends inside the Shanghai Municipal Police, and you didn’t give them any face. Just getting you into my office is difficult enough. Giving you a gun, now that’simpossible.”

Lee sighed. “Well, looks like I have to make do.”

“Hey, you were one of Assistant Commissioner Fairbairn’s best students.”

“He also didn’t like fighting with his bare hands.”

“Improvise. You always do.”

****

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For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

Front Sight

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There are three of them. Brown cardboard targets, man size. There’s a fourth figure, slightly shorter, in front of and between the second and the third targets.

His mind tells him a different story. The targets are Thugs One, Two and Three, black-masked and leather jacketed, screaming obscenities and waving guns. The last one is Jane. Sweet Jane with straight dark hair and heartbreak blue eyes.

“Stand by, stand by!”

His heart jacks up, pumping adrenaline through his veins. He’s done this before. He can do it again. When the buzzer sounds he’s springs into a run.

He’s got the art of the draw down pat. Left hand clears his shirt. Right hand grasps the pistol butt. He draws the weapon and brings both hands together, thumbs high and tight against the slide, just as he arrives at the barricade. The first target.

He leans out left and punches out the pistol. His vision narrows down into the crisp green circle that is his front sight, superimposed over center mass. He presses the trigger, feels it break. The Glock bucks in his hand and he releases the trigger, just enough to feel it reset. He fires again. Raises the weapon, sees Thug One screaming, charging at him and he puts a bullet through the yawning mouth.

He runs to the other side of the wooden wall. Brings his gun up again. His eyes find the front sight, and he sends two 115-grainers into the target’s chest. But handguns are anemic killers and Thug Two is still standing. He drives the gun up and hallelujah the front sight is right between his eyes and he presses the trigger.

He confronts Thug Three. Jane, too innocent for her own good, is right in front of Thug Three. No center mass shot. But he’s in pure predator mode and like the big cats of the savannah of his distant ancestors he goes for the throat and fires a double tap. Just in case, he aims a little finer and puts another nine mil into the brain housing group.

He lowers the smoking gun, scanning for more threats. It’s strictly pro forma. They are all dead. And Jane, she’s still standing and the bullets haven’t touched her.

Thank God.

The buzzer sounds. His partner calls the time. But it’s too slow.

He runs the drill again. Again. Again. Shaves off a quarter of a second here, a tenth there, once he takes off a whole second. But it’s still too slow.

Later that night he dreams again. Thugs One, Two and Three are bleeding out on the floor. But Jane, oh God Jane, she’s cradled in his arms, baptizing him in her blood, her liver weeping from the bullet Thug Two put in her back, her neck gushing from the one he’d fired, whispering, It’s okay Daddy, it’s okay.

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For more long form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

Redemption Road Part 5

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“What do you mean, he’s gone?”

The innkeeper flipped his record book around, showing it to Freeman. “Mr Johnson and his party checked out late last night. Right after the incident at the hospital. See?”

Freeman checked the log. Jude Johnson and his drivers had checked out at 0345, about an hour after Freeman and his team returned to bed.

“Did he say why he left?” Knight asked.

“He said it was too dangerous to stay here. Something about too many demons.”

“Yet he left his guards without telling them anything,” Bates said.

“When I asked, he said you’d completed your contract with him, and he and his crew can look after themselves.”
“That makes no sense,” Freeman said.

The innkeeper shrugged. “Did he pay you?”

“Just our signing fee,” Freeman said.

“Oh boy. Looks like you need to file a case against him.”

“Did he say where he went?” Knight asked.

“Nah. He didn’t tell me nothing. He screwed you good, huh?”

“Yeah,” Freeman said. “Got a job board around here?”

~

There were no motors in the caravan. Just wagons pulled by teams of oxen. No suspensions, no frills. Everybody left their belongings inside their assigned wagons and walked the broken road.

On the morning of the third day of the journey they arrived at Bernalow. It was a bustling town, but not so rich they could afford dedicated DNA testers and high walls. Once released from their caravan, Freeman, Knight and Bates dumped their rucks in their rooms and scoured the city in their assault packs and exos.

They visited the market and asked the merchants about Jude Johnson. They queried innkeepers about the man, and they asked the sheriff too. The response was always the same.

“You just missed him,” the sheriff said. “He was right here, talking business, looking to see where he could sell his stuff. I’ll get my boys to keep an eye out for him.”

Johnson was everywhere and nowhere in the town. Sometimes he sold goods, sometimes he just spoke to the people he met. But he was always one step ahead.

As dusk fell, the three men headed to the town square. Centred on a water fountain, there was Town Hall, people dining in the open air, merchants yelling out closing-time discounts, and most importantly, a church.

“Think they’ll let us in this time?” Bates asked.

“We have to try,” Freeman replied.

Inside, candles filled the stone building with light. The priest walked along the walls, extinguishing the candles one by one.

“Good evening, Father,” Freeman called.

The priest turned to them. “Good evening. What brings you here?”

“We’re travellers. New to town. Is it a good time for confession?”

The priest smiled. “There’s always time for confession. Who’s first?”

Freeman glanced at his companions. Bates raised his hand. “I’ll go.”

“Excellent. Come, right this way.”

The priest led Bates around the back where the confessional booth stood. Knight and Freeman planted themselves in the pews.

“How long has it been since confession?” Knight asked.

“Two years, eight months and twelve days.”

“You keep track?”

“You don’t?”

Knight snorted. “After everything we’ve done along the way, it’s hard to remember everything we’ve got to confess.”
“We do our best to remember. God will take care of the rest.”

“Like with all things, huh?”

“I—”

Gunshots ripped through the air.

Freeman’s rifle flew to his shoulder.

Another burst of fire.

Bates staggered out of the confessional, smoking pistol in hand.

“The priest! He’s a demon!”

A creature burst out of the booth. It had the face of the priest, but it had a thin proboscis for a mouth. Black blood dripped down its chest.

“Down down DOWN!” Freeman yelled.

Bates threw himself to the floor. Knight and Freeman cut loose. The demon sprawled face-first in a welter of gore, twitching.

The ground shook.

“What the—”

Tendrils sprouted from between the cracks in the floorboards. The wood blackened and softened, transforming into Bloom. Grey crystals condensed on the ceiling, long spidery lines cracking through the rock.

“We need to get out of here.”

Bates stood, swaying.

“Josh, what’s wrong?” Freeman asked.

“I…”

Blood gushed from his mouth and nose and ears. There was a thin ragged hole in his throat, surrounded with purplish flesh. A murky black substance plastered over the wound. Bates scratched frantically at his neck, drawing blood.

“Josh,” Freeman said calmly. “You’ve been infested.”

Bates opened his mouth, gasped. Black pustules burst from under his skin, hardening into carapace.

Freeman’s breath caught in his throat. It was Arkham all over again. It was a boy clawing his eyes out as the Bloom took him, a woman screaming as an infester mounted her, Father Abrams administering the last rites with Bible in one hand and pistol in the other.

“Do it,” Bates said. “You have to do it.”

Freeman aimed. The weapon remained silent.

“I can’t kill myself! DO IT!”

The trigger was stiff under Freeman’s finger. Nothing happened.

Bates’ voice dissolved into a growl. His flesh blackened. Bloom punched into his feet, engorging his torso, growing a hump on his back.

The trigger broke. Freeman howled, firing as fast as he could pull the trigger. The newborn demon dissolved under a hail of flechettes.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” Freeman whispered.

“You can apologise later.” Knight fished an incendiary grenade from a pouch, pulled the pin, and tossed the bomb on the body. “We gotta go.”

Freeman ran. Behind him, something, someone, screamed.

Bloom erupted all around the town square. People fled. Tentacles smashed through buildings, reaching for the sky. Roots erupted from the Earth and shattered the fountain. Water gushed forth for a moment, then a thick black patch smothered the spring. An arch, thick and sturdy, grew from it.

Jude Johnson and his four drivers strode from a side street and stood before the newly constructed Hellgate.

Freeman loaded his grenade launcher. Along the surface of every patch of Bloom, eyes and mouths opened. Dripping fangs and tentacles protruded from the openings. The eyes—dozens, hundreds of them, big and small—pinned the Crusaders with their wide, unblinking gazes.

“Freeman! Knight! So good that you came!”

Johnson’s voice echoed in the square, his back still turned to Freeman. But Johnson had lost the accent, and now he knew where he had heard his voice from.

The creature from beyond the Hellgate.

“You!”

A deafening cackle spread throughout the square.

“Turn and face me!”

Johnson laughed again. Flesh and clothes melted and regrew. He was turning himself around, rearranging his body so he now faced Freeman. The drivers mimicked Johnson, turning themselves inside-out, becoming perfect copies of the former human.

“Here we are, men of the cross,” the five Johnsons said.

“You used us,” Knight said.

It was obvious in hindsight. During the attack on Metro City, no one had screened the refugees streaming into the city. No one had stopped Johnson dispensing his medicines to the wounded. No one had stopped them from being evacuated to the hospital.

The demon laughed. “Of course I did! You were so—“

“Pete.”

Stepping up, Knight cut down the Johnsons with a long burst. The bodies went down, and the Bloom absorbed them all.
Johnson’s voice issued from every mouth in the Bloom.

“That’s rude.”

“How the hell?” Freeman muttered.

“We are one. We are all. We are coming. Behold, our true form!”

An unearthly sound issued from the arch. It was a thunderclap, a howl, a tear, and a rip all rolled into one. A force of nature that forced the men down. Red light blasted from the opening, and for a moment Freeman saw the benighted lands of Hell.

A black mountain of carapace-covered flesh crawled through the opening, blocking out the light. Eyestalks and tentacles sprouted from its body, dancing in the air. It had no legs, oozing across the ground like a slug, sucking up the Bloom as it rolled over the substance. The ground shuddered and cracked.

And it was still coming.

Footsteps echoed behind Freeman. Turning, he saw the sheriff and his men. They were outfitted in a variety of antique firearms. Against a monster like that, he didn’t think there was anything they could do.

“Crusaders! I heard about the…” The sheriff’s face paled. “What in the name of God…?”

“Boss, if you have any ideas, now’s a good time,” Knight said.

Freeman checked his grenade launcher. A fresh HEDP shell waited within.

“Pete, on me. Sheriff, take your men, get the civilians out, and distract the demon. I’m gonna blow down the Hellgate.”

The sheriff nodded. “Godspeed.”

Donning their masks, Freeman and Knight ran clockwise around the creature. The sheriff and his men went in the opposite direction. Rifles popped and shotguns boomed, but the Elder Demon didn’t seem to notice. It squirmed and writhed, forcing its bulk through the Hellgate.

Limbs whipped through the air. Looking up, Freeman saw a massive appendage falling towards him.

“Get clear!” Knight yelled.

The men jumped aside as the tentacle slammed into the ground. The shockwave threw them off their feet. Groaning, Freeman picked himself back up.

The tentacle was gigantic. Clad in thick armor and twice as tall as he was, it lay across the plaza, resting in the ruins of a three-storey building. Bloom sprouted from its tip. There was no way around it. Freeman scanned its surface, looking for handholds, but it was completely smooth.

It rose, twisting towards him, and fell again.

Cursing, Freeman leapt.

BOOOOM!

He landed on his belly, his mask pressed against a pile of rubble. Getting up, he looked around.

Knight wasn’t with him.

“Pete! You okay?!”

A voice called out from the other side of the appendage.

“I’m good!” Knight shouted. “Finish the job!”

A desperate cacophony of gunshots filled the world. Explosions and tremors answered them. Freeman ran, placing himself directly behind the Hellgate. From this angle, the Hellgate’s mouth opened into an infinity of darkness.

He lased the arch of the Hellgate. His HUD told him how high to elevate his weapon. Taking careful aim, he fired.

The grenade smashed into the edifice. The Hellgate shuddered and crumbled. The portal winked out, leaving behind the monster’s remaining mass in Hell.

And opening an enormous wound.

The demon cried. Again the earpro saved Freeman’s hearing, but he felt its voice shaking his bones. A flood of black blood gushed from the wound, covering the square and filling the drains and gutters.

The demon was still in the fight. Fresh tentacles sprouted from its body and sucked up the Bloom. The gaping wound began to close. As Freeman reached for a fresh grenade, motion caught his eye.

A fresh tentacle, small but lithe, reached for the ground, winding around and snapping up a man. Peter Knight.
“Boss! Need some help here!” Knight called.

The tentacle was wrapped around Knight’s lower body, leaving his arms free. Knight pointed his weapon and ripped off a long burst. Freeman aimed carefully and fired too. Their flechettes simply bounced off its armour.

Swearing, Freeman advanced on it, trying to get a better angle. Another enormous tentacle came crashing down. He dodged it, but now he was cut off.

Knight’s weapon ran dry. He drew a knife and stabbed at the tentacle, but the blade did not penetrate. The monster’s body reformed. A pair of jaws opened in its flesh. Knight screamed, freeing one hand, then the other. He dug into a pocket, producing a small round object.

The tentacle flung him into its mouth.

DEUS VULT!” Knight screamed.

The monster swallowed him.

A moment later, an explosion rippled through its flesh, blowing out a large chunk of alien matter. The monster screamed, its voice filling the world.

ENOUGH. THIS ENDS NOW.

Eyes emerged all over its flesh. Its wound had become a massive mouth, lined with strange suckers and razor teeth. Crimson eyes turned on Freeman. Strange geometries danced at the edge of his vision.

He couldn’t look away. He couldn’t move.

COME TO ME.

Unbidden, he walked to the mouth. He willed his muscles to stop. They didn’t obey. Unearthly laughter filled his ears. One step, another, a third.

The maw yawned wide.

Under his shirt, Freeman’s crucifix crackled against his skin.

Breath filled his lungs. His lips and tongue moved.

DEUS VULT!

Freeman’s vision cleared. The voices fled his mind. He was himself again. He snapped up his M891 and fired.

The 40mm grenade hurtled into the darkness. A muffled blast followed. The monster roared in pain, its appendages flailing and trashing. Switching to full-auto, Freeman fired long streams of ultra-high-velocity metal into the mouth, tearing up its insides.

The creature squirmed, its eyes blinking shut. When his weapon went dry he primed an incendiary grenade and flung it into the hole. A glimmer of white flame shone in the dark. It grew larger and larger, consuming the Eater from the inside out.

The monster screamed, thrashing and wailing and gnashing and crying. One last spasm, and it went limp.

The demon was dead.

~

Clearing out the remaining Bloom took another day. The caravan he had joined left without him. Freeman stayed for another week, helping to rebuild. When it was over the townsfolk buried the dead in their cemetery. The priests offered prayers for everyone ‒ believers and seculars, excommunicated and faithful, they didn’t discriminate.

Freeman stood in front of the graves of Knight and Bates. Their headstones were marked with their names and simple stone crosses.

“And now it’s just me,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

The dead offered no solace or remonstration.

“I’m going to finish what we started. Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison.

Crossing himself, he walked away.

~~

Freeman signed on with another caravan to New Rome. During the Fall, a regiment of Old World soldiers had retreated here and set up shop. They worked with the Church to restore order and preserve knowledge. Between the two, in the centuries since the demons came, New Rome had never fallen. If anything, it had grown.

They still had his biometrics on file. After a cursory inspection the gate guards let him through. Inside the city, after collecting his pay, he took a long, luxurious shower and fell into bed. When he woke, he discovered he had slept for nearly a full day.

He spent three days asking around, looking for directions, restocking his supplies. In the morning of the fourth day, the Sabbath day, he dressed himself in his freshest clothes and walked.

The church was tiny but well-kept. The kind of church given to new priests to gain experience, old priests as a final post, or priests who had fallen out of favour but could not be expelled.

In the courtyard, a balding man in a black cassock, his back straight, his eyes clear, swept the lawn. He looked up as Freeman approached.

“Good morning, Father Kelly,” Freeman said.

“Morning. Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

“It is.”

“You look like a man looking for something.”

“Yes, Father. I am William Freeman, formerly of the Order of Saint George. I am here with my brothers in spirit. We have walked the redemption road, and have come for confession.”

Kelly smiled. Stepping back, he opened the door to the church.

“Come in. We’ve been expecting you.”

~~

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Previous parts: 1, 2, 3, 4

Thanks for seeing this story to the end. If you’d like to support my other fiction, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

Redemption Road Part 4

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The stairs led to what was once an underground train station. Now it was a transition zone for people wishing to enter and exit Metro City. People packed the train platform, anxious and crying and commiserating. When the Metro City troopers descended, the people loosed a hearty cheer.

Bates, Knight and Freeman didn’t join in. They carefully carried Sharpe’s body to a corner and laid him down with the rest of the human dead.

“And now we are three,” Freeman said.

“We should police the body before looters get at it,” Knight said.

Wordlessly the men went through Sharpe’s pockets, taking everything useful.

“Who’s going to take his five-two-five?” Knight asked.

Sharpe’s M525 grenade launcher was still attached to the rifle. It was a critical weapon, one that shouldn’t be sold so long as they still had ammo for it.

“I will,” Freeman said.

Freeman slung Sharpe’s rifle around his shoulder, then methodically unfastened Sharpe’s grenade pouches and laced them on his armour carrier. He retrieved Sharpe’s bandoleer and wrapped it around his body too.

Behind them, a heated argument broke out, and the three men walked over. Johnson was arguing with a Metro City trooper.

“No! No drugs!” the soldier yelled.

“Your friend is dying!” Johnson insisted. “I can help!”

On the floor, a wounded man groaned as a medic wrapped his right leg with bandages. A large shard jutted from the wound, slowly dissolving into his flesh.

“What’s going on?” Freeman asked.

Johnson gestured at the wounded trooper. “He’s been shot. There’s Bloom in his bloodstream. He needs treatment now.”

“And as I was saying,” the other trooper said, stepping forward, “we’re not cleared to use non-issue drugs.”
“What kind of drugs?”

Johnson held up a syrette to the light. “This.”

The markings on the tube read ‘Gardia Biotech’. Its logo, the company’s initials stylised to resemble a caduceus, was on the reverse. Freeman had seen many just like it. Hell, he carried a bunch of similar syrettes himself. It was the real deal. Probably.

“It’s a stimshot,” Johnson continued. “It’ll break down the Bloom and promote healing. If you take him to your hospital, the doctors are goin’ to give it him anyway.”

The wounded man moaned. Black fibres crawled out from under the bandage, spiralling up his leg. The medic backed away, unwilling to touch the alien matter.

“The Bloom is spreading,” Knight said. “He needs it.”

The trooper hesitated.

“When we served in the Church, we used stimshots just like this one,” Freeman said. “If you don’t use it now, he’ll die before he gets to a doctor. Or worse.”

The soldier swore. “Do what you want.”

Johnson uncapped the syrette and punched it into the wounded man’s thigh. The soldier groaned. The Bloom shrank away, drying up and flaking off.

“That’ll hold him until you get him to hospital,” Johnson said.

“He’d better,” the soldier said. “If he doesn’t, it’s on you.”

The rest of Johnson’s crew treated the remaining wounded with stimshots before handing them off to stretcher parties. Johnson supervised them.

“These stimshots… they’re your trade goods, right?” Freeman asked.

“Right.”

“You’re giving them out for free?”

“Times like this, money don’t mean nothin’.” Johnson grinned. “‘sides, it’s free advertising.”

Freeman chuckled.

~

When the chaos subsided, more people arrived to take charge of the situation and assist. The priests refused to say prayers for Sharpe. The soldiers accepted the body anyway, allowing him to be buried alongside their own dead. As they wrapped him in a simple white shroud, Freeman and his team stood over the body and recited their prayer.

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison,” Freeman said.

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison.

~

The far side of the train station led to down to Metro City itself. Everywhere Freeman looked there were people walking, haggling, eating, working. There was barely room to breathe. The background roar of a thousand voices tripped his earpro, dialling down the sound. Despite that, the moment people saw the weapons they gave Freeman and his team a wide berth.

After Johnson and his crew checked in at an inn, Freeman and his team were dismissed from their duties. Freeman moved the M525 grenade launcher to his rifle, then helped his team split up Sharpe’s belongings. They spent the rest of the day selling off non-essential gear or exchanging them for essentials: ammo, food, clean water, other supplies. They refilled their empty pouches and magazines, and retired to the inn in time for dinner.

A round of beers. A toast, a prayer and a simple meal. They said grace and tucked in, dining on stewed vegetables and meat best left unidentified.

As they ate, Johnson approached their table. “Am I disturbin’ you?”

“Got any work for us?” Freeman asked.

“Just checkin’ in. Must be tough, losing a man. My condolences.”

“We’re good,” Knight said icily. “I thought you were with your drivers.”

“They’re busy runnin’ errands.” Johnson glanced about the room. “Listen, I haven’t had anythin’ since breakfast today and I’m starved. Mind if I sit with ya?”

Freeman had half a mind to turn Johnson away. The other half insisted that he should be gracious to his employer.

The former Crusaders made room. Johnson pulled up a chair and ordered another bowl of stew.

“You guys doin’ okay?” Johnson asked.

“We’ll be fine,” Knight said testily.

“Just askin’ is all. I know you guys were tight.”

Freeman grunted. How could he begin to explain what it to kill and bleed and die side by side with a brother in arms? There was no need to explain to a fellow warrior, and no use describing it to a civilian.

“He is with God now,” Bates said. “He’s earned his reward.”

“That’s something, at least.” Johnson shifted uneasily. “Y’know, somethin’s been buggin’ me.”

“Yeah?” Knight prodded.

“Y’all told me you were pilgrims. But I heard the troopers callin’ you Crusaders.”

Freeman mulled that answer for a moment. “Before our pilgrimage, we served as Crusaders. That’s how we met.”

“Ah. But I also saw the priests denyin’ Neil a Christian burial. Why’s that?”

Bates frowned. Knight glared. Freeman had to remind himself to breathe.

“Did I do somethin’ wrong?” Johnson asked.

“It’s between us and the Church,” Freeman said. “Nothing you need to worry about.”

“I’m plannin’ to stop over at some religious communities. If it could cause a problem, I need to know.”

“It won’t be a problem.”

“Really? I heard you were excommunicated. That could cause issues.”

“How did you find out?” Knight demanded.

“Heard the priests talkin’. Now, I understand it’s unpleasant business, but I need to know if it could affect our business.”

“It won’t,” Freeman said.

Johnson met Freeman’s gaze. “I’ll be the judge of that.”

“We didn’t do anything wrong,” Bates said. “It was just…politics.”

“Politics? That really could cause problems. Now I have to hear about it.”

Knight shot Bates a dirty look. Freeman just sighed. The cat was out of the bag. Might as well get it over and done with.

“Heard of a city called Arkham?” Freeman asked.

“Can’t rightly say I have.”

Freeman sighed again. “Three years ago, we received reports of demons emerging in Arkham. The Order of Saint George was dispatched to investigate. By the time we got there…”

Freeman stared into his beer. Knight took over.

“The city was crawling with demons. Every time we burned out a nest, they popped up somewhere else. It was brutal. Street to street, house to house, hand to hand. They destroyed half the city before we realized they had set up a network of Hellgates in the sewers. By the time we were done…there was nothing left of Arkham.”

Johnson nodded sadly. “It sounds terrible.”

Fury crept across Bates’ face. “It got worse. We took seventy percent casualties. Seventy percent. The ones still alive were court-martialled. They charged us with negligence of duty, mass murder, wilful destruction of civilian and Church property… The head of our Order defended us against most of those charges. But there was one thing he couldn’t help us with.”

“We were excommunicated,” Freeman said.

“That doesn’t sound fair,” Johnson remarked.

“It’s not,” Bates said. “It’s politics. The Church needed a scapegoat. Better to disband an order than for the masses to lose their faith. And the other Crusader Orders had their eyes on our gear for the longest time. The moment we were excommunicated they divided everything we had amongst themselves.” Bates sighed. “Politics.”

“Bad business all around,” Johnson said. “How are you handling it?”

The men exchanged glances. Freeman raised an eyebrow. Knight nodded. So did Bates.

“Among our Order, we have a tradition,” Freeman said. “Whenever one of us commits a mortal sin, we travel to New Rome on foot. Along the way, we help everybody we can and slay whatever demons we find. It’s our way of doing penance. And when we arrive at New Rome, we ask for forgiveness. We call it walking the redemption road.”

“Will the Church let you back in?”

“Excommunication is a medicinal penalty, not a punishment,” Bates said. “After completing penance, the Church will absolve us. It’s part of the sacraments. They have to take us back.”

“They must,” Freeman whispered.

~

After the evening meal they retired to their rooms. Freeman spent the rest of the night attending to his kit and praying. When he was done, he lay on the hard bed and stared at the ceiling until his eyelids drooped.

Gunfire.

He leapt out of bed.

Long hammers of autofire, mixed with howls and screams. He peered out the window. By the dim light he saw people fleeing down the street, lit by the underground streetlamps.

The door burst open.

“Boss!” Knight yelled.

“Yeah,” Freeman said. “Kit up. We’re headed out.”

Freeman’s hands flew. He slipped on his boots over bare feet, snapped on his armour carrier over his thin sleepwear, slung his rifle and fastened his helmet into place. In the hallway outside his room, he ran into his men.

“What’s the call?” Bates asked.

“We help, however we can,” Freeman said.

Outside, they encountered a demon. A roiling jumble of flesh and limbs and organs dragging itself down a tiny street with its oversized paws. A hump extruded from its back, mounting an extended barrel. The demon stomped on a body, fired up a shop, and turned towards Freeman.

The men opened fire. Freeman pressed the trigger as fast as he could, his vision narrowing into a black-and-white tube as it came closer, closer—

“Cease fire!” Knight yelled. “It’s dead already!”

“What fresh horror is this?” Bates whispered.

Freeman hadn’t seen anything like it before. The fleshy thing was immobile, bleeding from dozens of yawning wounds, its turret frozen. It wasn’t a threat for now, but he didn’t want to come close to it. Not until it was burnt to ash.

Sirens wailed, reverberating in the close confines of the underground city. Gunshots followed. The men ran, chasing the sound of gunfire.

A squad of Metro City troopers charged past them. Freeman sprinted alongside the squad leader.

“Hey!” Freeman called. “Can we help?”

The soldier glanced at him. “You the guys who defended the gate, right?”

“Right.”

“We could use more guns in the fight. Follow me!”

When they arrived at the hospital, Freeman saw writhing tentacles oozing wetly out of broken windows. Broken bodies littered the ground. Monstrosities rolled out of the entrance, one after another, each bearing different configurations of claws, guns, arms and legs.

No cover. Nowhere to run.

But Crusaders never ran from the fight.

“Light ‘em up!” Freeman ordered.

He flicked to full auto and hosed down the nearest monster. The flechettes cut through their carapaces as though they were paper. Something whined past Freeman’s ear. A heartbeat later, he released the trigger and scan.

The monsters on the loose were all down. But more emerged from the entrance of the hospital.

“Pete,” Freeman said calmly. “Lock it down.”

Knight poured streams of full auto fire through the door as a fresh wave of monsters burst through. Kneeling, Bates and Freeman fired short bursts at the ones that tried to escape. The Metro City troops joined in, throwing a wall of steel downrange. Bodies stacked up outside and around the door—but they were still coming.

“Make a hole!” a man cried.

A squad of Metro City troopers came charging down a crammed street. Dressed in heavy yellow chemsuits, they carried a mix of M891s and bulky flamethrowers. The Crusaders stepped aside.

“Hot shot!” the leader called.

As the men laid down suppressive fire, a pair of flamethrower operators stepped up. Scarlet tongues of burning fuel leapt from their weapons’ throats, engulfing the hospital, the demons and the Bloom in cleansing flame.

It was over.

Freeman gagged at the sickeningly sweet stench of roast pork. Leaning against a wall, he paused to catch his breath. Down the street, he saw a man standing at the entrance to an alley, smirking at the sight.

Jude Johnson.

Freeman blinked.

And Johnson was gone.

~~

PSX_20170918_043442

Previous parts: 1, 2, 3

For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

Redemption Road Part 3

apocalypse

Johnson had a fleet of four biodiesel-powered trucks. Clean and cool and quiet. Impossible to find outside the big cities and major polities. He had stocked his vehicles with fuel cans, leaving precious little space for cargo. Or people.

The men spread themselves into two teams. Freeman and Sharpe in the lead vehicle with Johnson, Knight and Bates in the chase truck. It was a tight fit; every spare square inch inside the cabs was filled with goods of some kind or other.

Freeman wondered how Johnson made a profit. His drivers weren’t anywhere near as chatty as he was, and Johnson himself wouldn’t discuss business. Pre-Fall long-haul trucks had disappeared with the advent of flying demons, and most traders went with cheaper horse or mule-powered wagons. The ones fortunate enough to have motor vehicles relied on high-profit low-volume transactions to survive. Food was not included in those. Johnson had to be carrying highly valuable medicine indeed.

The road out of town was rough and bumpy, the highway long dissolved into well-worn dirt. Freeman scanned the world outside the windows, his M891 close to hand.

Black dots danced in the sky. Birds or flying demons, he couldn’t tell. This far away from polities with functional air defences, it was best to steer clear.

The road led to an ancient abandoned settlement. It looked like a horde of giants had thundered through the place, smashing aside everything in their path. Out the corner of his eye, Freeman saw things skittering between piles of rubble. Johnson sped through the ruins, unwilling to stop.

Past the town, patches of Bloom marched across the land. Crystalline vines suffocated hollowed-out buildings. Here it came in multi-coloured hues ‒ grey, black, red, green ‒ showing the world what they had consumed.

“I heard demons make their nests in the Bloom,” Johnson said.

“You heard right,” Sharpe said. “We should burn the Bloom down the first chance we get.”

“That’s mighty wasteful, if you ask me.”

“Wasteful? The demons are making our world more like Hell with each passing day. We have to stop them.”

“The Bloom’s been here since who knows when. No point tryin’ to root it out. It’ll just grow back. Always does. Better we harvest it instead. Nothin’ we have on us woulda been possible without it.”

“What about the demons who use it?” Freeman asked.

“They’re intelligent creatures. Instead of tryin’ ta slaughter each other for all time, we oughta talk to them, see if we can reach an accommodation.”

Freeman shook his head sharply. “No. They want only one thing: the final downfall of man. You can not negotiate with demons. I say we kill ‘em all.”

“Amen,” Sharpe agreed. “Fire and steel, that’s the way to go.”

“You got that from your Good Book?”

Freeman nodded. “Church records show that demons don’t usually talk to humans. Those who do seek only corruption and conquest.”

Johnson shrugged. “Well, I suppose you’re the experts in this sorta thing.”

“You got that right,” Bates said.

~

Metro City was a living city built into the bowels of a dead one. When the Fall hit this part of the world, humanity took shelter underground and stayed there ever since.

Bloom had overrun much of the cityscape. Grey and brown growths sprouted from gutters, shops, skyscrapers. Now and then the convoy had to bypass roads choked off with Bloom.

After an hour of wending and winding through the streets, they saw the first sign of human civilisation: a bazaar.

Formerly a city square, makeshift stalls of wood and cloth now lined the sidewalks. Merchants hawked goods fashioned from the bones of a dead civilisation, and traders led horse wagons through the market and haggled for the best prices.
A pair of guards stood watch at every entrance to the bazaar. They were bedecked in Old World arms and armour: exosuits and full plate, gloves and masks, M891s and fusion goggles. It was the same gear Freeman and his team had, but newer and cleaner.

Johnson exchanged some banter with the guards, and slowly drove through the bazaar. The crowds made way for them, gawking at the battered vehicles.

At the heart of the square a squad stood watch behind a ring of sandbags. A pair of tripod-mounted machine guns rested close to hand. Nearby, officials and machines awaited in booths to inspect and admit travellers.

Past the checkpoint was a stairway that led down into the depths of the hollowed city. The sign above the entrance had long ago been painted over, bearing the words ‘METRO CITY’ now.

Johnson and his crew stepped out of their vehicles. The four drivers clustered around the man, utterly disinterested in everything around them.

Freeman and his team mounted their assault packs on their massive rucksacks, shouldered their bags and spread out, watching the crowds and watching the guards watching them. He made sure to keep his finger off the trigger and his rifle pointed safely at the ground.

“Passports, please,” the guard commander said.

Johnson patted down his pockets. “Hey, what the… damn it. Must have left mine back in the truck.” He cracked a smile. “Sorry, gettin’ old. I’ll just pop out, get it, an’ come right back, okay?”

The guard sighed. “Fine. Next please.”

As Johnson sauntered away with his drivers, Freeman and his team lined up, their passports ready. The guard inspected Freeman’s little blue book and lifted his eyebrows.

“New Rome, eh?” the guard asked. “You Crusaders?”

“We were.”

The secular authorities of New Rome had allowed the former Crusaders to retain their passports. The guard flipped through the passport and compared Freeman’s face to the photo. “Completed your terms?”

“Yes sir.”

“Thanks for your service. Please line up for inspection.”

Dogs sniffed Freeman for contraband drugs while millimetre wave scanners peeked into his packs. After that, a technician swabbed the inside of his cheeks and fed the sample into a DNA tester. No matter how hard they tried, demons could not hide the Bloom that permeated their bodies, right down to the molecular level.

When he was finally cleared, he retrieved his kit and presented his passport to the customs officer. She sat at a table just outside the entrance, a computer at the ready. It was pre-Fall tech, a slate-like device propped up at an angle on the table, wired to a thumbprint reader and a passport scanner.

As Freeman handed her his passport, she asked, “Where did you come from?”

“Holstead,” Freeman said.

“That’s to the southeast, isn’t it? Have you heard of the Eater?”

“Who?”

She indicated the reader with one hand and patted her slate with the other.

“Right thumb on the reader and eyes on the camera, please.”

Freeman complied.

“Thank you,” she said. “The Eater. An Elder Demon. Word is, he’s a demon in the shape of a man, or maybe a man turned into a demon. He rolls into town, all polite-like, and when he’s settled in he opens a Hellgate and gobbles up everyone. He’s been making his way northwest, eating every town along the way.”

A light turned green. Freeman removed his thumb from the reader. “What’s this Eater look like?”

“He keeps changing his human form. Only consistent description is that he keeps smiling a lot. And when he turns into a demon, he becomes this huge, fleshy…thing with eyes and mouths and—”

Gunfire ripped through the air.

The men dropped everything and fanned out.

“What was that?” Freeman asked.

“M891s,” Sharpe said.

High-pitched chattering filled the world. Men and women and children screamed. Sirens blared.

The guard commander sprinted over. “Demons are attacking! Get underground now!”

The bureaucrat blinked. “But their passports—”

“No time, dammit! Go!”

Freeman hefted his M891. “Sir, we have weapons. How can we help?”

The soldier gave him a once-over. Nodding, he pointed at the sandbags.

“Take up position over there. Cover the civilians. Don’t let any demons through.”

“Got it. Gentlemen, let’s go.”

At the checkpoint, guards manned the machine guns and urged the civilians through. Freeman and Knight positioned themselves to the left of the entrance, Sharpe and Bates to the right. More gunfire split the air. In the distance, demons ululated.

“No sign of targets,” Knight said.

“Set up for a static defence,” Freeman said.

The men set their rucksacks by their feet, donned their helmets, and dug out their spare magazines, placing the mags by the sandbags.

Freeman had six spares in his pack, three on his armour carrier, one in his rifle. A thousand rounds in all. He set the last mag down and saw Johnson and his men hustling past the checkpoint. They were hauling massive boxes and bags. Without a word, they disappeared downstairs.

“What the hell?” Knight said. “Their cargo worth dying for?”

“CONTACT FRONT!” a guard yelled.

Pillars of smoke rose from the far end of the bazaar. Civilians scattered before them. Freeman turned on his goggles and peered through the smoke. No go; the smoke was too thick and hot for his thermal vision to penetrate. Through the haze the demons fired indiscriminately. People screamed and died, but Freeman saw nothing.

“Anybody see anything?” Sharpe asked.

“Nothing,” Freeman said. “Be ready. They’re going to—”

They came. Through gaps in the crowd and in between the stores, demons streamed towards the checkpoint. Like the ones at the Anderson farm, these superficially resembled men, but their bodies were covered in jet-black carapace, and their four eyes blazed red. Their left hands ended in wicked claws, and their right arms were machine guns grown from their flesh.

They advanced in bounds, shooting at every human they saw. Freeman aimed, but there were still too many civilians in the way.

“GET DOWN! GET DOWN!” Freeman yelled.

The demons fired. The machine guns answered.

Blood sprays and body parts flew. The surviving civilians screamed, diving to the ground and crawling away from the guns. The smoke began to disperse.

Through the chaos, Freeman saw a cluster of demons. Freeman patted Knight’s shoulder and pointed.
“Demons! One o’clock, two fifty metres, by the store!”

Knight fired short bursts of six. Two demons went down. The rest scattered. One of them ducked behind a nearby wooden cart. Freeman walked fire left to right, right to left. Shredded cabbages and tubers and wood went flying. The demon slumped over, falling out of cover. Freeman placed three more rounds into it.

A high-pitched CRACK rose above the gunfire.

Next to Knight, a Metro City trooper fell from his machine gun, a massive hole in his head.

“Man down! Man down!” a soldier yelled.

That trooper dragged the body aside and took up the gun—only to have his face explode before he could fire a shot.

“SNIPER!” Freeman shouted.

Knight ducked and scooted away. The other mounted machine gunner stepped off, and a heavy shard blew through his chest.

“The sniper’s targeting the machine guns!” Knight yelled.

Freeman turned on his thermal vision and poked his head up.

The sniper had to be on the move. That was fine. All he needed was a glimpse—

—a flash of red—

Freeman pumped out rounds as fast as he could pull the trigger. With his left hand, he pulsed his weapon laser.

“Engage my target!”

A red crosshair appeared on his display, and everybody else’s. They opened fire ‒ Bates with single shots, Knight with disciplined bursts. Sharpe fired his forty. The window exploded in fire.

“Got ‘im,” Sharpe said.

A loud ripping noise.

Sharpe toppled over, shards embedded in his helmet, his face, his throat.

“Man down!” Bates yelled, pumping fire downrange. “Contact, ten o’clock!”

The demons advanced like a tidal wave, pouring out from behind cover. Their arm-guns pointed at the sandbags, firing with every step as they steadily advanced. Most of the shots went wild. Freeman ignored them, flicking to full auto.
“FPF!” Freeman called.

Final Protective Fire. The men unleashed storms of full-auto fire, punishing the enemy wherever they concentrated. The demons scattered, hiding behind barrels, stores, carts, and corpses. Freeman fired through them all, his high-velocity flechettes tearing apart everything in their path.

The magazine went dry. He grabbed a fresh one and scanned.

The Metro City troopers had rallied. They were back on the machine guns, taking over where Freeman’s team had left off. Freeman slapped in the drum, hit the bolt release, and saw more troops bearing heavy weapons charge out the stairwell.
They crammed themselves next to the living defenders and loosed an impenetrable wall of firepower. Freeman joined in, dialling down to single shot and firing at everything that remotely resembled a demon. Aim, fire, aim fire, aim—

“Cease fire! Cease fire!”

Freeman released the trigger.

Silence.

Stillness.

It was over.

~~

PSX_20170918_044151

Previous parts: 1, 2

For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

Redemption Road Part 2

soldiers-grave.jpg

The men removed the bodies, dug a firebreak around the house and set the house ablaze with an incendiary grenade. The wood burned, taking the Bloom with it.

Freeman dug out his radio and tuned it to a clear channel. “Sheriff Hart, this is Freeman. Do you copy, over?”

“Freeman, Hart here. How’s it going?”

“We’ve finished investigating the Anderson farm. We encountered demons and Bloom on site, including a Hellgate in the attic. Six demons KIA, Hellgate shut down, and now the site is being purged. No sign of the Andersons. But we saw six bodies being digested.”

Hart sighed. “Copy. Guess we know what happened to them. I’ll round up a posse and swing on over. We’ll be there by dawn.”

“Roger. And Sheriff?”

“Yes?”

“We need a priest.”

~

The team took turns to stand watch through the night. At dawn, a dozen hardy men headed up the main road. Hart was in the lead, and at the rear was an elderly man in a black cassock and white clerical collar. Freeman raised a hand in greeting, and Hart returned the gesture.

“Mornin’ gents,” Hart said.

“Morning, Sheriff.” Freeman coughed; his armour had stopped the shard, but it had left a deep bruise that he was only feeling now.

With a broad sweep of his arm, Hart gestured at the smoking ruin and the Bloom-covered field.

“Looks worse in daylight, don’t it,” Hart said.

“Yes sir.”

Hart looked at the bodies laid out by the road. “Those the demons?”

“Yeah.”

“Ugly way to die. But at least we don’t have to… Is that a child?”

Freeman sighed. This was never easy. “Yes sir. The demons must have taken her. Changed her into one of them.”

Hart crossed himself. “My God…”

“That’s demons for you.”

“Horrible business, what they do to humans.” He paused. “I only see four of you.”

Freeman pressed his lips together. Steadied himself with a breath. Looked into Hart’s eyes.

“We lost a man.”

Hart shook his head sympathetically. “I’m sorry. At least you stopped the demons before things got worse.” Digging into the pocket of his coat, Hart extracted a small bag. “Here. Your reward. I know it won’t bring your man back, but at least y’all did the right thing. And don’t worry; we’ll take care of the rest.”

“Thanks.”

Freeman stuffed the coin bag into a cargo pocket. It was so heavy his pants sagged.

“What are you planning to do with the Bloom in the fields?” Freeman asked.

“The Mayor’s going to ask AYG Mining to look at it. Might even sell land rights if the price is right.”

Freeman bit his lip. He’d rather burn it all, but he knew remote communities like this would see things differently.

The Bloom was both bane and blessing. It leeched out the life from the land around it, sucking up nutrients, metals, and other materials buried in the Earth and concentrating them in itself. When the demons were hungry or wounded, they ate the Bloom to restore their strength. When they needed reinforcements and there was no Hellgate nearby, the Bloom turned human prisoners into more demons.

When humans learned how to harvest the Bloom, it had marked the turning point of the Tribulation. Everything Freeman had on him ‒ his gear, weapons, ammo ‒ were perfect reproductions of pre-Fall tech. The Church had preserved the knowledge to create them, but only the Bloom had made the raw materials readily available.

“Think it might breathe life back into town?” Freeman asked.

“That’s the Mayor’s thinking. Got to make the best of a bad situation. For now, my boys are gonna guard it.”

“Fair enough. But be careful. The Bloom spreads fast. You’ve got to station the guards at least half a kilometre from the field.”

“Will do.”

The priest stood at the smoking ruins of the house, offering a prayer. Freeman and his men waited until he was done then approached him.

“Father, we need your help,” Freeman said.

“What’s the matter?”

“We lost a man last night. We’d like you to perform a burial service for him.”

The priest nodded. “My condolences. The Sheriff said you were Crusaders. Is that right?”

If the priest were an ordinary civilian, Freeman would have opted for an obfuscation. But he had never lied to a priest before, and this was no time to start.

“We… We were, Father.”

“Were?”

Freeman held the priest’s gaze. “We’re from the Order of Saint George.”

The priest pursed his lips, disgust lighting his eyes. “I cannot help you.”

“Father, please. He helped to save—”

“You are excommunicate and anathema. The sacraments are forbidden to you.”

“Can’t you spare—”

“You are no longer of the Church!” the priest snapped.

“Father—”

Knight laid a hand on Freeman’s shoulder. “It’s no use,” Knight said. “We’ll take care of him our own way.”

The priest grunted and walked away.

~

The four men carried Knowles’ body to a flat patch of ground, dug a hole so deep the Bloom wouldn’t touch him, and gently lowered him into the hole.

Bowing their heads, they gathered around the grave. Freeman cleared his throat.

“Lord, we commend unto thy hands the soul of our departed brother, and we commit his body to the ground. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. He gave his life in service to you and to humanity. Please have mercy on him and grant him the absolution he sought in life. Please continue to watch over us as we continue to walk the road. Thank you. Amen.”

“Amen,” the men echoed.

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison.

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison.

~

Back in town they divided Knowles’ belongings with the mechanical manner of men who had performed the same unpleasant task too many times before. Food, water, ammo and money they divided among themselves. Everything else was sold or traded to the town merchant. The gold they received was heavy, but it was the one currency accepted everywhere in the Fallen world.

With that out of the way, they made for the saloon. Checking in their firearms, they ordered drinks and clustered at a table in the corner. They rarely drank, but today they made an exception.
Standing, Freeman raised his mug. “To absent companions!”

“Absent companions!”

They drained their glasses in a single pull and slammed them on the table.

“And now, we are four,” Freeman pronounced.

“Gone too soon,” Sharpe said. “Too damn soon.”

“Oliver was the best of us,” Bates said. “No better friend, no worse foe. Saved our hides who knew how many times. Sent back too many demons to count. What the priest said doesn’t matter; if anybody earned redemption among us, it’s him.”

Knight signalled for another drink. “Amen, brother.”

“We’ll walk the road in his place,” Sharpe said. “We’ll finish what we started.”

A tall, thin man entered the saloon and scanned the room. He fixed his gaze on Freeman, smiled and sauntered over.

“Heads up,” Freeman said. “Single male approaching.”

The man raised his hand. “Hello. Mind if I join you?”

“What’s the occasion?” Knight asked, his tone taking on a studied air of neutrality.

“Just wanted to thank y’all for dealing with the demons at the Anderson place. Terrible business.”

The man had the strangest accent Freeman had ever heard. It sounded like it came from all over, a mix of hayseed twang and slicker sophistication.

“You’re welcome,” Freeman said.

“Heard the demons killed someone too. Friend of yours?”

“Yes.”

“My condolences. Mind if I get the next round?”

“Go ahead.”

The man flagged down a waitress and ordered five beers. Then he pulled up an empty seat and joined them.

“Don’t mean to intrude,” the stranger said. “Just wonderin’ if y’all are soldiers or mercenaries or something.”

“Pilgrims,” Freeman said.

The stranger’s smile grew broader. “Packin’ heavy firepower for pilgrims.”

“Dangerous world out there.”

“No kiddin’. Looks like you’ve got some trainin’ too.”

“Why do you say that?”

“You dress the same way, carry the same kind o’ gear, keep watchin’ the room even as we talk. You Crusaders?”

Freeman pondered his response for a moment. On one hand, lying was a sin. On the other, the men still had to earn their keep.

“We completed our terms.” Freeman paused, locking eyes with the stranger. “But we still keep the faith.”

“Ah. Well, are you boys interested in a job?”

“I’m more interested in your name right now.”

The man laughed. “Of course, of course. Where are my manners? Name’s Jude. Jude Johnson. I’m a travelin’ merchant. Heard the demons are actin’ up again ‘round these parts. Lookin’ to hire guards for my caravan.”

“What cargo are you carrying?” Knight asked.

“Medicines and food mostly. Nothing that goes against the Good Book, I assure you, but this cargo won’t keep for long and I’m itchin’ to offload them ‘fore they go bad.”

“You don’t have a freezer?” Freeman asked.

“I do, but they cost me money every day to run. I’ve got a real tight margin already, and if I don’t start sellin’ I’m gonna start bleedin’. I’m willin’ to pay a premium if you can get me to market safely.”

“Where’s your destination?”

“New Rome.”

The four men exchanged a look. Freeman raised an eyebrow. Knight, Sharpe and Bates nodded as one.

“We’re in,” Freeman said.

~~

Cheah Git San Blue

For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.