Valentine Blues (A Lazarus Short Story)

Summary: 

The kids in Valentine, Nebraska just aren’t right. Not anymore.

They’re Dangerous. Unpredictable. Hungry. As violence breaks out and people start dying, butchered in their homes, only Yancy Lazarus—bluesman, gambler, mage, and former wet-works man—can put things right. Well, he can try …

***

Something was wrong in Valentine.

I could feel it in the air, beating down on my senses like an invisible sledgehammer.

My El Camino rumbled beneath me as I cruised along US 20, nearing the edge of the sleepy town, a few worn buildings poking up along the horizon. I leaned over and cranked down the window, letting the wind whip into the cab, filling the interior with the scent of fresh-turned earth—musky and rich—and the sweet aroma of wildflowers offset by the pungent smell of cow shit. I breathed deeply, inhaling a great big whiff of country air, then exhaled it slowly through my nose.

Great swathes of dusty dry yellow stretched off to either side of me, a flat land deep in the heart of a drought, but ahead lay a patch of green, like an oasis in a desert. I turned an eye skyward, searching the clouds above for any telltale sign of the strange energy bearing down on me, but the sky was clear as far as I could see. I turned my gaze back to the two-lane cut of asphalt lazily meandering off to the left. A “Reduced Speed Ahead” sign popped up on the right, so I dropped down from sixty-five, coming damned near to a crawl as I passed by the first few buildings on the edge of Valentine.

Off to the left lurked a recently renovated motel, the Trading Post, laid out in a “U,” the grass out front lush and inviting, a series of squat bushes lining the roadway. The motel vanished in a blink, replaced in short order by a run-down gas station, followed by a few rows of single-wide trailers, many old and worn. None of ’em looked occupied. The run-down trailer park disappeared behind a clump of leafy trees as the road straightened, swelling into a four-lane boulevard, lined on either side by gas stations, hardware stores, a couple of fast-food chains, and a spattering of rough motels with names like the Waterfall Inn or the Motor Carriage Lodge.

Cheap tacky places that appealed to approximately no one, anywhere, ever.

I travel a lot, living out of the back of my car, moving from state to state, town to town, bar to bar, eating cheap bar food and playing the blues for beer money, so I know a thing or two about sleepy towns. This place? This place was a Podunk shit-speck—maybe eight or nine hundred people—the kinda town folks drive through, but only because they were on the way to someplace better, more interesting. The shops lining the streets damn near shouted that fact at the top of their lungs: all catered to the weary travelers looking for a bite to eat or a place to catch a wink.

Podunk to the core.

Not that I have anything against Podunk shit-speck towns, mind you. Not the kinda place I’d ever want to settle down in, obviously, but small towns are the best places to shoot the shit with crusty old-timers over at the VFW hall. Tradin’ war stories, having a few laughs, killin’ time.

I stared at the shops as I cruised, my eyes picking over the long shadows cast by the fading sun, searching for signs of life, but everything seemed dead. Cold. The air washing into the cab felt heavy with arcane power, some powerful construct laying over the entire town like a smothering pillow.

Eric Clapton blared from my speakers, but with a grunt of irritation I flicked the power button, killing the gritty tunes so I could get a better read on the town. The music died, replaced by silence. An unnatural quiet radiating from the buildings and the streets. A hush that demanded compliance. Valentine felt like a friggin’ library, presided over by some haughty, overbearing lady with boxy glasses and a motherly cardigan, eager to bring down the gavel the moment some snot-nosed kid broke the peace.

I rolled up to a three-way intersection guarded by an unnecessary stoplight looking down on an otherwise empty street. There were cars around, true—lots of older American made trucks, a few newer SUVs in various makes and models, a couple muscle cars with peeling paint—but they were all parked along the streets, empty. On the surface, everything looked fine. No sign of trouble. No evidence of rioting. No burnt buildings or broken store windows. The stores, though mundane, looked neat and clean, carefully and lovingly maintained. But no people.

Not a one.

I stopped at the light even though I had a green, loitering for a moment as I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel, the sound unnaturally loud in the stillness. Straight ahead, flanking the US 20, lay more motels and fast-food joints. Then the road broke away, clearing the shit-speck town, cruising on for another three hundred miles until it turned into Interstate 25 in Wyoming. To the right, though, lay North Main Street, a quaint two-lane, slicing deeper into the town, leading back into the residential area, eventually turning into the US 83, which headed into South Dakota.

I was bound for Rapid City, which meant that bastard road was on my route.

For a long beat, I considered just gassing it, laying my foot down flat against the pedal and driving right on through this shithole. Skip Rapid City entirely and head west into Wyoming instead. After all, one town was as good as another, since I didn’t actually have a place to be.

I idled at the intersection a spell longer.

Yep, the smart thing to do was to keep right on truckin’, put this place firmly in the rear-view, and leave the residents of Valentine to deal with their own bullshit. Whatever bullshit that happened to be.

I frowned, sighed, then reluctantly gave the Camino some gas and wheeled right, puttering onto North Main Street and deeper into the heart of the town. Dammit. Idiot.

Stupid, bleeding-heart moron, is what I was.

I passed a few more shops and city buildings, all made of old red brick—a post office here and some kinda historical center there—before finally passing into a winding neighborhood loaded down with cute, double-story cookie-cutter houses that could’ve filled the suburbs of any city in America. Lifeless trucks and motorhomes dotted streets and driveways. Too-green lawns stared at me as I rolled past, mocking me with their vitality while the rest of the town remained dead and quiet. Still no friggin’ people. Zippo.

I started taking turns at random: a left on West Second followed by a quick right onto North Edna, my gaze constantly sweeping back and forth. Constantly searching for any indication of what in the holy hell had happened here.

Each turn brought me further into town, offering me more views of the same quaint, rural neighborhoods. Creepy as hell. Like driving through a modern-day ghost town. I slowed the Camino to a crawl as I hooked a right onto Third Street and caught sight of red and blue police lights strobing ahead, tattooing the paneled siding of a ranch-style up on the left. The den window, looking into the home’s interior, had been shattered. Pieces of glass littered the lawn while the curtains fluttered in a soft breeze. The front door stood ajar, yawning like a mouth, and a suspicious patch of red decorated the front walk.

The cruiser—a deep blue sedan with Valentine Police sprawled across the side in blocky letters—had mounted the curb, coming to a rest on the well-manicured front lawn. The driver-side door sat open, but there was no sign of the cop. No movement. No sound. Just the strobing light, whoosh-whoosh-whoosh-whoosh, washing over the house again and again and again.

I kept right on rolling, not wanting to get out until I had a damn compelling reason to do so.

Three blocks later, near the intersection of West Third and North Wood, I saw the kids.

A bunch of ’em, ranging from scabby kneed preschoolers to surly eyed high schoolers. They loitered around a sprawling brick building—a looming sign labeled it as the Valentine K–12 School—the younger ones hanging from monkey bars or swinging on the playground, while the older ones milled around in small pods on the blacktop and the connecting field. A couple played basketball, a few listlessly kicked a soccer ball back and forth, most shuffled absently from foot to foot. Uniformly, though, they did everything in complete silence.

No one talked or laughed, which was as downright unnatural as things got. Me? I’m not a big fan of kids—they’re loud and obnoxious, plus they reek of responsibility, which isn’t really my bag. But even I know kids well enough to say they don’t ever do anything in complete silence. Ever.

Game was definitely afoot. Some kinda creepy-ass Children of the Corn game, which was no bueno and instantly set my teeth on edge.

But, I’d already sorta committed to figuring out what in the hell was going on here, so against my better judgment I eased the car to a stop. A host of empty placid faces swiveled toward me, fixing on the Camino like a pack of uber-intelligent, rabid wolves. Dammit. With another sigh, I shifted the car into park, popped the door, and slid from the driver’s seat, stretching my weary legs with a groan. I peered over the roof at the kids and casually reached for the monster hand cannon tucked away in a shoulder rig beneath my leather jacket.

I fingered the pistol grip for a moment, feeling the worn wood inscribed with runic symbols of power, then shook my head, deciding against it. Scary asshole kids were blastin’ out creepy vibes by the truckload—practically screaming I’m gonna murder you and turn your skin into a fleshy bathing suit through a megaphone. But, they were just kids. Kids clearly in need of intense psychological counseling and possibly an exorcism, but I couldn’t just start shooting indiscriminately. Not yet. Poor scabbed-knee bastards could actually be possessed, so it wouldn’t be smart to start fixing a potentially short-term problem with a cylinder full of long-term, irrevocable solutions.

A pair of high school kids, a boy and a girl, promptly turned, regarding me through hazy, hooded eyes. The boy was your typical corn-fed, football-playing farmhand: big ol’ son of a bitch with sandy hair, thick shoulders, and a pristine letter jacket in blacks and reds. The girl, trailing just behind him, was a prom queen in the making—thin build, crisp cheerleader uniform, and shockingly blonde hair tied back in duel ponytails.

“Nice town you got here,” I said with a lopsided grin, desperately working to beat down the slobbering-fear-badger clawing at my insides. “Don’t suppose one of you would mind pointing me in the direction of an adult. Any grown up really—cop, politician, your local grocery store bag boy. As long as they can vote I’m interested and if they can buy beer all the better.”

Naturally, they said nothing, their blank faces hardening as they shuffled toward me, lethargic at first, but only for a moment. Before I knew it, the pair broke into a lurching run, eating up the distance between us. A flash of movement in my peripheries caught my attention—I wheeled in time to see more kids emerging from the houses across the street. They too were lurching my way, closing in with the hungry, coordinated movements of a hunting shark pack surrounding hapless prey.

***

The kids were friggin’ rabid, but I wasn’t quite ready to put them down for keeps. Thankfully, I still had plenty of options aside from the ol’ hand cannon. I breathed out, clearing my mind, dispelling fear and worry, and opened myself to the Vis—the cosmic power underlying matter, existence, Creation—just waiting to be exploited by someone with the right talent. Like me. A mage. True, I’m basically a homeless, wandering degenerate, but I’m also a former wet-works man for the Guild of the Staff, which meant I had a thing or two up my sleeve.

Time came to a herky-jerky crawl as energy flooded into me like a crashing tsunami. Heat and life filled me up, sharpening every sense, infusing my limbs with power and strength.

Everything came to a grinding halt, slowing to half-speed, then to quarter-speed:

The high schoolers barreling toward me seemed to hit a wall of invisible molasses; their movements slow, exaggerated. A glance back revealed a cadre of middle schoolers, most sporting jeans and collared T-shirts, headed for me. On instinct, on the level of subconscious thought, I thrust both hands out, conjuring a swirling cloud of silver fog, a force construct, which stretched and curled out in every direction.

Time snapped back into full speed all at once, the tendrils of creeping power engulfing the kids closest to me, bands of raw energy smashing into ’em like some giant hand, swatting ’em away in a wave. Bodies flew into the air, scattering from the force of the blow. A few kids skipped over the grass—twisting, rolling, bouncing, skidding—while others flipped through the air, ass over teakettle. A flash of guilt poked at me, but I shoved it away. Kids were tough, I reminded myself. Maybe they’d have a few bruises come morning time—assuming they were human, which was no certain thing—but mostly they’d be fine. Probably. Possibly.

Then, before they could gain their feet and force me to make a real fight of it, I shoved the Vis away, closing myself from the alluring power, and slipped back into the cab of the Camino. Definitely time to beat feet. I pulled the door shut with a thud, dropped ’er into gear, and slammed my foot down on the pedal. The Camino’s fat tires squealed, leaving rubber on the asphalt as the car rocketed forward.

I stole a hasty look in the rearview mirror, relieved to see none of ’em were pursuing me.

Nope, not following, but most were back on their feet, and all were staring at me with blank faces and empty eyes. Something flickered beneath the skin of the corn-fed jock in the letter jacket: a ripple of motion—waves washing over the surface of a pond. His hazy, distant eyes seemed to shift for a moment, blue irises giving way to golden eyes slit horizontally with a ribbon of black like a goat’s eye. That kid wasn’t a kid. I couldn’t be sure what the hell he actually was without knocking the holy crap out of him and dispelling his flesh-suit, but he sure as shit wasn’t human.

Great. Perfect. Asstastic.

I kept on straight, blasting through a couple of stop signs, eager to leave the satanic school behind, then swerved left onto North Main Street, rear end sliding into the turn—

I mashed down on the brake a split second later, jerking the steering wheel left to avoid the line of cars running across the street in a makeshift roadblock of steel and glass. Dammit. On my left was an Ace Hardware store, on my right yet another beat-to-shit motel, but beyond that, on the other side of the car blockade, was the police station: a boxy two-story building of more red brick, with a marble face and wide doors. More cars lined both sides of the street, and it looked like someone, or several someones, had fortified the station—turned the place into a friggin’ doomsday bunker. The door and windows were boarded over, and curled strands of razor wire cordoned off the walkway, leaving only a narrow gap that led to the door.

Could be, I’d finally found the adults.

Carefully, I threw the Camino into reverse, parking off to the side so some reckless yahoo, like me, for example, wouldn’t rear-end my baby. I slipped from the car, scanning the building for signs of life. Things looked quiet, but I’m an old hand and a former Marine—spent time in Okinawa with the 3rd Battalion 3rd Marines, then later did a stint over in Nam—so it didn’t take me long to catch the glint of a scope on the roof. The shooter was obviously in the prone, doing a damned good job of keeping hidden, but that scope told me everything I needed to know.

Cautiously, I edged between the cars blocking the street and approached the building, hands raised, palms open—the universal symbol of surrender. I did, however, open myself to the Vis, drawing in a trickle of power, preparing the weaves for a quick and dirty friction shield just in case the guard on the roof got an itchy trigger finger.

“Go ahead and stop right there, mister,” came a hard-edged voice as I neared the C-wire barrier. “I don’t fancy shootin’ you, but you better believe I’ll pull this trigger if you gimme cause. I fought in Phantom Fury—part of sniper unit with Three-One. I could drop you at a thousand yards before you blink.”

“Well, Semper Fi,” I said with a nod, “but there’s no reason to go and do something like that. I’m thinkin’ you and yours have some weird-ass shit hittin’ the fan around here, am I right?”

He didn’t answer, but through my heightened senses, I heard him shift uncomfortably under my accusation.

“Listen, bub,” I said, shooting for calm, friendly, “I think I can help you, but not if you turn my head into pink mist, you trackin’?”

Another tense pause, followed by the squawk of a handheld radio. “Go ahead and lay on down,” he finally replied. “Get your face flat against the ground, hands up and visible. The sheriff’ll be out in a minute.”

I complied, squatting, lowering myself onto my belly, scanning the door.

A long squeak broke the tension as a woman, maybe mid-forties and trim, with a tangled swatch of golden hair, stole toward me, sidearm drawn and at the ready. She didn’t speak as she moved, instead she slipped over and cuffed me with a quick, practiced ease, before pulling me to my feet and leading me into the building’s interior.

Silently, she guided me down a corridor lit by harsh sodium lights overhead, my black boots clacking on the linoleum flooring. We passed a receiving station, manned by a pair of overweight, forty-something men with flat tops and cammo jackets. Beyond them were people—more adults packing the station. The douches at the desk regarded me with open hostility and made to get up, but the sheriff waved ’em off and pulled me into a tiny cubbyhole of a room with a single exit, an innocuous circular table, and a couple of padded office chairs.

The sheriff lowered me into a seat, cranking up on my arms, situating them behind the chair, all without unlocking the fancy steel bracelets. With the kinda power I had at my disposal, a pair of cuffs wouldn’t deter me from breaking loose if I really wanted to, but I wasn’t here to pick a fight, so I kept my cool.

The sheriff lowered herself into a seat adjacent to mine, letting out a long sigh as she scrutinized me, parceling me up, filing away every detail. She was older than I’d first pegged her, maybe fifty, with dimpled cheeks made for smiling and fine crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes. She looked tired, though, deep purple bags under gray eyes, frown lines creased into the skin by her mouth.

“I’m Sheriff Copeman, Heather Copeman,” she offered. “My man up top says you might know something about what’s going on in our little slice of paradise. That so?” She leaned forward, elbows resting on her thighs, gaze intense and burrowing. “Or maybe,” she said, “you’re working with that shitheel, Piper. Come to try and push us into paying. Threaten us maybe?”

“Look,” I replied with a shrug, “whatever’s ailing your town, I’m not a part of it, Sheriff. I swear. And I sure as shit don’t know who this Piper clown is. Never told your man I did. I said I think I might be able to help.”

“Uh-huh.” She nodded, unconvinced, leaning back in her seat, folding her arms across her chest. “Since you’re not involved in any of this,” she said with a frown, “I’m wondering just how exactly you think you can help us. I don’t even know how I can help us, Mr. …” She paused, lips pursed in thought. “You know, I never did get a name from you. Care to fill that in for me?”

I cleared my throat, shifting awkwardly in my seat. I had sort of a questionable relationship with the law due to some of my various assignments for the Guild. As a result, I was on a number of different watch lists, though generally I had no problem keeping my head down and my profile lower than dirt.

I could’ve lied, but at this point I wasn’t sure it mattered. “Yancy Lazarus,” I said eventually, fidgeting in my seat, readjusting my ass in the squishy chair.

“If I run your name, am I gonna find anything?” she asked, glowering at me.

“Could be,” I said with a noncommittal nod, “but I’m thinkin’ you got bigger things to worry about—like that roving mob of bloodthirsty teens over by the school. The ones that have you hunkered down on DEFCON five.”

“And what do you know about them?” she asked, focused as a laser.

“I know they look like townies, but aren’t. They aren’t even human. Considering the level of paranoia on display here, I’m guessing they’ve probably done some spectacularly horrendous shit.”

She stood, turned away from me, and started pacing back and forth, arms squeezing tight against her ribs. “Well, those are some awfully wild claims, Mr. Lazarus. Everything okay up here?” She reached up and tapped at her temple with one finger. “’Cause you sound a few cans short of a six-pack.”

I snorted, then shook my head with a roll of my eyes. “Don’t give me that. You know it’s true—otherwise you’d never have a jarhead up on your roof, ready to blast a civilian in the face. That sorta reeks of desperation and fear.”

“Fair enough,” she said, her feet still restlessly carrying her back and forth across the narrow room. “But you seem to know an awful lot for someone uninvolved. We’re pretty jumpy around here, so maybe you can shine some light on what you think you know and how you happen to know what you do.” She stopped abruptly, spinning, then slamming her hands down on the table. “Sound fair?”

“I don’t think you’d believe me if I told you,” I replied with another shrug.

“Mr. Lazarus,” she said, righting herself, “for the past week, this town has been cut off from the outside world. No radio traffic, no phone calls, no internet. Over the past week Valentine has seen twenty-three homicides—kids murdering their parents. Tearin’ them apart with their bare hands, then eating the remains. I saw a six-year-old bite through the carotid artery of her grandmother. Lapped up the blood like a goddamn cat. I’m past the point of disbelieving anything. Anything. So give me your best shot.”

I smiled and with a whisper of will conjured a floating orb of flickering flame the size of a softball, which burned like my own personal sun. “Convinced?” I asked.

She stared at the orb for a solid half minute, the light shining in her tired eyes, mouth slightly agape. “Holy Mary Mother of God. Okay, good enough for me,” she replied, reaching over and keying the radio at her shoulder. “Harlan, this is Copeman. I need you down in interrogation ASAP, over.”

***

Sheriff Copeman loitered in the corner, legs crossed, one hand resting on the butt of her Glock, a permanent scowl etched into the lines of her face. She was cagey and understandably so, considering the circumstances.

The guy across from me, Harlan—first name, not last—was exactly the opposite: easygoing, lots of friendly smiles, unflappable nature. I’d been expecting a meathead, lots of muscles and tattoos, but Harlan was a short, unassuming man with a slight build, a balding head, and a clean-shaven face. A mousy fella wearing desert camo, his long barrel rifle resting against his leg while he sipped at a cup of coffee from a Styrofoam cup.

“Piper,” he said tentatively, unsure how to begin, where to go. “Well, he came to us about two months back. A drifter. Real odd duck, though. Sorta thought he wasn’t right in the head.” He tapped at his noggin. “Gave me a bad feelin’ from the get-go.”

“Can you give me any kind of description to work with?” I asked. “Small, tall, fat, skinny, giant pointy horns, or maybe a snake tail? Anything would be great.”

Harlan canted his head, then gave a little shake. “Sorry. Fella had a real forgettable face. Pretty average—white, 5’5″, brown hair, little pudgy around the gut. But I can’t remember him, not really. No one can.”

I grunted. A glamour, probably. Only thing that’d explain it. “What’d this guy want? Did he threaten you in some way?”

“No, no.” He waved one hand complacently through the air, brushing away my question. “He offered to help us. This fella, he came over to the mayor’s office, walked right in like he owned the place. I do security for the mayor—well, did before …” He trailed off. “Before his son ripped out his throat.” He looked down, avoiding my scrutiny. “Guess that don’t matter much now. Anyway, we had us a real bad drought this year.

“The worst one I can ever remember. Farms were drying up. Crops dying. Then in comes this hobo, no offense meant”—he nodded at me—“says he could get rid of the drought. Had this little flute. He’d twirl it around and around. Said he could play a tune and end the drought.” Harlan snapped thin fingers. “Said he could end it just like that. But he wanted fifty thousand for his effort.

“Well, the mayor, he agreed ’cause he reckoned it was a bunch of hogwash and he really just wanted the guy gone.” He paused, sipped his coffee, then drummed his fingers on the table. “Piper, well, he nodded, smiled, and slipped away. And you wouldn’t believe it, but the next day that drought broke. A week later Piper, well he come back, says he wants his due. The mayor had me kick his ass right outta town—no good to have some loon like that hanging around. But that’s when he made his threat. Said we’d broken faith. Told us he’d get his fee in flesh and blood. Now here we are.” He sighed and shrugged.

“So,” Sheriff Copeman said, “what can you tell us?”

I leaned back into my chair, looking up at the pock-marked ceiling tiles. “Not much without meeting this guy. But from the gist of it, I’d say you made yourself a deal with a fae lord or maybe some dusty old fertility godling. Things like that don’t really give a shit about money, so it was probably running a con the whole time—he expected you to break the deal, opening the door for whatever shiesty business he’s got in mind. Like I said, though, I don’t know how to fix it until I figure out what he’s done to the kids.”

“So what do we do?” the sheriff asked, eyes narrowing, forehead creasing.

“You?” I shook my head. “You folks just hang tight. I’m gonna head out and see if I can’t pick a fight with this Piper asswipe. Figure out what we’re up against.”

“How you reckon you’ll do that?” Harlan asked, perking up at the idea of a little ass-kickery.

“Don’t worry about it. I got a feelin’ he’ll come out of the woodwork once I start blasting holes in his shithead army of nightmare kids.”

It took only a little haggling before Sheriff Copeman agreed, turning me free, then escorting me from the premises.

“Good luck,” Harlan called down to me from the roof as I weaved through the C-wire barricade. I shot him a quick wave, then beelined for Third Street, not bothering to get in the Camino. Didn’t want to risk this Piper guy denting up the bodywork—taking a shot at me is one thing, but no one touches the Camino. It took me maybe five minutes to get back to the K–12 school on foot, but I’d attracted attention long before I ever reached my destination.

Blank eyes watched me from house windows while ghostly shapes slipped from shadow to shadow, alley to alley, street to street, tracking me, though never closing. Cautious, now that I’d tipped my hand.

A ring of kids waited for me at the four-way intersection of Third and North Wood, fanning out in a tight horseshoe by the school. Twenty of ’em, easy. A daunting number for sure, but even more so because I’d seen double that when I’d first stopped at the school. So the question was, where were the rest of the little turds? With my luck, probably closing in around me like a noose, hemming me in tight so I wouldn’t be able to run. That was okay, though. I wasn’t planning to run. Not this time.

Letter-Jacket and his bouncy cheerleader girlfriend broke apart from the rest of the pack, apparently the impromptu leaders of this merry little gang of horrors.

“Glad to see you’re both doing okay after our little tussle,” I said, drawing my pistol from its holster, canting the gun so I could check the revolver’s cylinder for rounds. “But here’s the thing, if you screw around with me again, I promise you’re not gonna walk away. So, let me just make this real simple—I want to talk to your boss, Piper. If he’s not here in”—I bobbed my head from side to side—“let’s say two minutes, I’m gonna start shooting. Find out what’s under those flesh-suits.”

Letter-Jacket hissed as he dropped into a crouch, limbs elongating, joints cracking, fingers stretching into spidery appendages. More kids started dropping, shifting. A few at first, but more every second. Morphing, their rudimentary flesh-suits melted away, revealing pasty long-limbed critters of ropey sinew, bleached skin, and pouching potbellies that skittered around on all fours. Each had a chinless frog-like head, attached directly to their rib-lined torsos; they stared at me with yellow goat-eyes, their fleshy lips pulled back from blunt, yellowed horse teeth.

Yep, definitely not human. No doubts in my mind now. Oh, also, grade A nightmare fuel. I’d really been hoping to bluff my way through this encounter, but apparently the freaks surrounding me didn’t mind taking things to the next level. Great. Just my friggin’ luck.

A battle cry went up a moment later, a chorus of awful voices shrieking and warbling, the sound hoarse, raspy, and sharp—a dog whistle made for human ears. Almost as one, they came at me in a wave, scampering on hands and feet, shuffling forward with a lopsided gait that nevertheless ate up the space between us quick as hell. I bolted toward a nearby truck, leveling my gun, going to town as I ran.

I aimed at what remained of Letter-Jacket and squeezed the trigger a pair of times—the gun barked in my hand, spewing a flash of fire from its muzzle. Most Rube handguns won’t do much against the movers and shakers of the supernatural community, but my piece wasn’t any regular handgun. Nope, not even close. It was a specialty item crafted by the Dökkálfar: .44 Magnum, dark hammer-forged steel, six-inch barrel, etched with runes and mystic symbols, swirling and twisting with artful flourishes.

Only bad, bad things lay at the end of the muzzle. Which Letter-Jacket found out.

The first round went wide, lodging itself in the wall of a nearby building, but the second shot caught him in the jaw—the side of his ugly ass mug exploded in a shower of skin and black blood. He let out a gurgled shriek of pain and surprise, then spiraled to the ground, groping at his ruined face as he died.

I kept moving, dropping another of the encroaching Pasty-faces before scrambling into the back of a beat-to-shit pickup. Fighting from the high ground was always smart, even if the high ground ended up being in the back of a truck. Pop-pop-pop, I squeezed off my remaining three rounds, blasting one of the spidery-limbed dickbaskets in the stomach, punching a softball-sized hole of shit-kickery clean through its center. Another of the Pasty-faces—a short little freak that’d probably been masquerading as a toddler—I dropped outright. Its headless torso flopped to the roadway.

The cylinder ran dry, and though I had a speedloader in my pocket, I stowed the gun instead. A great tool, my hand cannon, but against a small army, thirty strong, I’d need more than bullets.

With a snarl, I pulled in sweet, life-giving Vis—my senses sharpening, strength flooding my body, time taking a shuddering breath—and thrust out my right hand, conjuring a spear of fire, thick as my wrist. Flame washed over the wave of creatures closest to the pickup, tongues of orange and yellow lapping at exposed skin, setting pilfered clothes ablaze. The front row fell back yowling, arms waving and flapping in the air. A few dropped to the ground, rolling in manic circles to put out the flames, but most simply ran around in terror, streaks of oily smoke trailing behind them.

That move got their attention awfully quick.

More pressed in, though, only to drop as the sharp report of distant gunfire split the air with a thunderous crack—rounds shearing down bodies. Not my handiwork either.

I took a hasty glance back toward Main Street and thought, for just a second, I saw the glint of a rifle scope, though it was probably my imagination. Still, it had to be Harlan. God bless that hillbilly hick. The firing continued in earnest: the shots slow, steady, methodical, and precise as a surgeon’s scalpel. Every round found a target—sinking home with a deadly thud and a spray of black gore, dropping opponent after opponent.

The mad rush slowed, faltered, and died as the strange pack of critters surveyed their fallen dead, too-large eyes shifting suspiciously between the corpses and me in turns, confusion evident on their gruesome faces. Obviously, these clowns had expected some easy game, but were now reconsidering their options. I still wasn’t sure what exactly I was dealing with here, but that hesitation told me a couple of things: one, they weren’t keen on dying horrible deaths and two, they weren’t nearly as tough as some of the nastier things in Outworld.

Both damn-good points to know.

“Yeah, that’s right, assholes,” I called, shifting from foot to foot, hand still outthrust—a loaded weapon ready to maim or kill. “This isn’t gonna be a walk in the park. Now, like I said, get me your boss, Piper, or things are gonna start getting ugly—”

The melodic sound of a flute cut me off mid-sentence, its graceful trill parting the tension in the air and stilling the assembled mass of ugly-ass critters in an instant. The sound of that music swirled and danced around me, thrumming with ancient, potent power. Some kind of Vis-wrought glamour, meant to control and manipulate emotion and thought. The friggin’ working pounded at my brain like a sledgehammer, demanding I cease my murderous tomfoolery. Demanding I relax, submit.

“That’ll be quite enough,” a man said as the music died.

The speaker in question stepped out from between two houses near the end of the block and ambled my way, his steps light and carefree. At a glance, he looked human—average height, unremarkable build, dusty brown hair, and a plain, if pinched, face sporting a five o’clock shadow. He wore faded jeans, a deep brown poncho, squared-toed cowboy boots, and a garish white Stetson. Guy looked like some sort of Old West gunslinger, except instead of a pistol he carried an ancient wooden flute, painstakingly carved with intricate vines and thick leaves.

“Yancy Lazarus,” he said, drawing ever closer as the long-limbed freaks scuttled out of his way, subjects scraping before their king.

“Got it in one, bub,” I said with a nod. “I take it you’re Piper?”

He bowed with a fanciful flourish of his poncho, like some kind of matador acknowledging his adoring public. “So I am. And let me say what a pleasure it is to meet you—it’s not every day I run across such an esteemed former member of the Fist of the Staff. You’ve got quite the reputation in certain circles, Mr. Lazarus.”

I shrugged one shoulder and hocked a fat loogie to the ground to show him what I thought of his pleasantries. “Listen, guy,” I said, “I’m not interested in any ass kissing. Let’s just cut to the part of the conversation where you tell me who you are, what in the hell you’re doing here, and what it’s gonna take to get you to go away and give back the kids you took.”

“A man of business,” he said with a smug nod, then twirled his stupid flute around and around in one hand. “People, they call me the Pied Piper—”

“Like from that Brother Grimm story with the rats.”

“One and the same,” he said with another bow and flourish. Friggin’ weirdo. “I also happen to be a lesser lord of the Springlands. Now, in answer to your questions, I am here conducting business and there is naught you or anyone can do to get the missing children back. The governing officials of these fair lands entered into a binding agreement with one of the Daoine Sìth, then reneged on their word.” He pouted, tut-tutting as that damned flute spun round and round. “Very bad form, I’m afraid. Now, I am simply exercising my right to recompense.”

“By taking their kids,” I said, folding my arms, offering him a cold, flat glare.

“That is my chosen form of compensation, yes. Now, I know a thing or two about you—information gleaned from some of my kith and kin—so I know my decision might rankle you. The fact remains, however, that I am acting lawfully and within my rights. They entered into an agreement and failed to follow through, and this?” He spread his hands, gesturing toward the crowd of heinous monsters.

“Well, this is the consequence. Now, I am prepared to let your assault on my children go, since you acted in ignorance, but if you interfere with me or mine again I shall take it quite personally. Are you prepared to commit yourself to such unpleasantries for people you don’t even know?”

“You threatening me, asshole?” I asked, voice a growl, as I conjured a sphere of crystalline ice in my palm.

The Piper dipped his head and held up a hand in a placating gesture. “Haste and anger make fools of us all, Lazarus. So please, just consider my offer, won’t you? Otherwise, we may find ourselves at an unfortunate impasse. And I think you’ll find I can be a formidable adversary, despite your”—he paused, eyes narrowing, head tilted to the side—“unique skill set.” Then, before I could reply, he twirled on his heel, poncho spinning in a whirlwind of cloth, and started playing his flute. A jaunty tune that urged you to move and dance. To follow. To obey.

And his pasty-faced brood did just that. The beasts turned and trailed after him.

***

“So what did you find out?” the sheriff asked.

I absently ran my palms over my dusty jeans. The damn interrogation room felt claustrophobic, despite the fact that I knew I wasn’t being charged or held—guess there’s just something about police stations that give me the jitters.

“Not much I didn’t already know.” Except that you might be royally boned, I thought. As much as I hated what was going on in Valentine, if these idiot Rubes really had entered into a legally binding contract with the Piper, there wasn’t much I could do for ’em. They shouldn’t have screwed around with something they didn’t understand. There were a lot of nasty things out there in the big wide world; most were predatory, looking for any excuse to attack. The law of the friggin’ jungle, right there.

Harlan pushed his way through the door a moment later, carefully balancing a large plastic trash can full of sloshing water.

“Just set it here,” I said, waving him over. The man complied, confusion running across his face as I removed my socks and dipped my toesy-wosies into the water with a soft sigh.

“I’m sorry,” Sheriff Copeman said, eyeing the trash can, then rubbing at one temple, “but what exactly is this going to accomplish?”

I sniffed, then wiggled my toes. “It’s magic stuff,” I replied, even though it’s not really magic—more like advanced physics than weird rituals or any of that occult bullshit. “Don’t worry about it. I just need to hammer a few things out.” I closed my eyes, letting go of my fear and anxiety over this whole clusterfuck, feeding all of those unhelpful thoughts and emotions into the fires of the Vis as I conjured a weave of water and will, boring deeper inside myself. Seeking to connect with my inner man.

And by “inner man,” I mean Cassius Aquinas, the shit-talking water-elemental who lived inside my head, permanently bound to my subconscious mind.

When I opened my eyes a heartbeat later, I was no longer gazing at Sheriff Copeman in the boxy interrogation room. Instead, I stood on a narrow street lined on either side by two-story buildings and lit with the yellow glow of evenly spaced street lamps and neon signs in a riot of hues: sapphire blue, fallout green, look-at-me-red. Most of the buildings had balconies jutting out over the wide sidewalks, which were filled with umbrella covered tables, all absent of guests. Bourbon Street, smack dab in the New Orleans French Quarter.

Except it was quiet, still, and lifeless—a thing which could never be said of the real Bourbon Street.

My brainscape, a metaphysical representation of my psyche, which naturally resembled the Big Easy, with its hot, muggy nights, over-the-top eats, and outta-this-world music scene. Here I was at home. Here I was safe and the aches and pains of real life were like distant memories, hazy and faded at the edges. The air filled with the scent of slow roasted pork—tangy, smoky, sweet—while licks of gritty blues swirled around me, thick as cigar smoke. I inhaled deeply, letting tense muscles relax and unknot.

“Yancy,” came a voice from behind me. My voice to be precise. I glanced left, watching a dark figure, bathed in weak light from one of the hanging lanterns near a brick-fronted eatery, saunter toward me. He held a stout glass of scotch in either hand; a fat cigar hung from the corner of his mouth. He extended one turquoise-tinged hand, offering me the second glass as he drew up next to me.

I took it with a thankful grunt and a nod, then pulled a long slug as I regarded the man. Cassius Aquinas. An Undine—a creature of water and spirit, permanently grafted into a piece of my soul. The very embodiment of my subconscious mind. Minus the sea-water-colored skin, he could’ve passed for my twin: an average guy of maybe forty with short-cropped, dark hair and an unremarkable height and build.

“You been paying attention to this horseshit in Valentine?” I asked without preamble.

He titled his head and took a deep drag of his cigar, then nodded in confirmation.

“So you got anything for me? Seems like this Piper douche is the kinda guy you mighta heard of in your past life.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I know him. It’ll be easier to show you, though.” He placed one hand on my shoulder, fingers sinking down, then wheeled, dragging me with him. With a step, we shifted, leaving behind the comfort of the French Quarter, manifesting in a sprawling room with plush carpet, dark wood wall paneling, and mahogany furniture—all old, finely made, and smelling of lemon oil and leather. Cassius’s office, I guess you could call it. I took a seat in a padded leather club chair and gazed up at a ginormous wall-mounted flat screen.

A picture of the Piper appeared on the TV, except now he was dressed in some stupid, frilly Shakespearian get up with a wide collar, puffy sleeves, and a ridiculous floppy hat. Complete tool.

“That’s what he looked like the last time I ran across him,” Cassius said, sweeping his free hand toward the screen. “But he goes back further than that—he used to go by the name Silenus.” The picture on the screen blinked, resolving into an image of a potbellied, goat-legged yahoo with a pipe. “That was when he was still living the high life with Dionysus, back in the days when Greece was still a major player. Silenus is a minor satyr deity, I think. Asshole’s fallen a long way since then, though.” He paused again, drawing a long pull on his cigar. “He’s been running con games since the fifth or sixth century.”

“What kinda cons?”

Cassius shrugged, a look of distaste creeping over his features. “A tasteless, unimaginative one. Nothing like what I did to those pricks in Glimmer-Tir—and he only works his hoodoo on Rubes, which is about as lowbrow as you can go. Ol’ Silenus there runs the same friggin’ play every twenty or thirty years. Rolls into some little flyspeck town or village, uses his fertility-god powers to whip up some kinda problem.

“Plague-rat infestations were his tragedy du jour in the middle ages, but he’s got control over the weather, crops, all kinds of shit. Anyway, after he stirs the pot, he swoops in, fixes the problem he created, and demands payment. Not a bad grift, I guess, but lazy as hell. Then, obviously, when the townsfolk don’t pay, he takes kids. Guy’s a grade A shithead. No one likes him. No one.”

“Why kids, though?” I asked with a frown, rubbing at my chin. “What’s he do with ’em? Is it some kinda virgin sacrifice thing?”

The picture on the TV flickered again, and Silenus’s goat-legged image was replaced by a photo of the nasty Pasty-faces. “You know what satyrs and seahorses have in common?” he asked.

“What? No. How the hell would I know that? More importantly, why in the friggin’ hell would I know that?” I replied, staring at the drink in my hand. “They both start with s, I guess.”

“Yes, they both start with s, clearly that’s the connection.” Cassius offered me a colossal eye roll. “Seahorse daddies give birth. Same thing for satyrs. Piper takes the kids in order to hatch a fresh brood of changelings. He gives birth to a horde of the shifty shits. His revolting offspring, in turn, kidnap a bunch of kids, steal their identities and memories, infiltrating the home, then eat the parents. Once the changelings are mature and the mental link becomes useless, Piper eats the kids, thus closing the whole disgusting cycle.”

“Holy shit,” I said. “That’s brutal. Like pushing someone into a wood chipper, brutal.”

“Right?” Cassius said with a shake of his head. He hunched forward, swirling his drink, staring at the swishing vortex of Bourbon, then offering me a sidelong glance. “You gonna go after him?”

I looked away, unwilling to meet his eye, and pinched the bridge of my nose with a grimace. Was I gonna go after him? Maybe coming to Valentine in the first place had been a mistake. Piper didn’t want me here, and he sure as shit wasn’t gonna stand in my way if I decided to hop back in the Camino and split. The folks of Valentine were the ones that entered into the contract. They were the ones that’d screwed the pooch, not me. The universe was giving me a chance to walk away—I could wash my hands of Valentine and leave guilt free.

Well, mostly guilt free.

My mind turned toward those kids. A bunch of kids that’d die unless I put my own neck onto the chopping block. I scowled. Sighed. Tossed back the remainder of my drink in a single gulp, the booze hitting my belly like a splash of napalm.

“You’re such a bleeding-heart moron,” Cassius said. “Complete moron. If you kill us, Yancy, I’m nominating you for the Darwin Awards.”

I waved his insults off. “Yeah, I know. I keep thinking the same thing.” I grimaced. “But those kids, Cassius.”

“Fine, idiot. Whatever.” He crossed his arms and scowled at me. “Piper’s got this thing for abandoned cave systems, alright? And the closer to a body of water the better.” He grumbled for a moment “If you can find his lair, you’ll find the kids, and you’ll find Piper. But watch out for that stupid-ass flute of his. All his power is music based—he uses that thing as a focus to channel the Vis. Shut down that flute, you’ll shut him down, too.”

I opened my eyes, Cassius gone—vanished back into my subconscious—the interrogation room unchanged. I pulled my feet from the water, weaved a small flow of air and heat to wick the moisture away, then shimmied back into my socks and boots. The sheriff stared at me from the corner, her lips turned down in irritation, hands planted on her hips. “So,” she finally snapped as I adjusted the cuff of my pants, “what did you find out with your ‘magic’?” She used air quotes around the word, as though she couldn’t really believe what she was saying.

“We need an area map,” I replied, “preferably a topical one.” I paused, jaw clenching. “I’m also gonna need a local guide—one familiar with the cave systems in the area. And a mechanic. One who knows his way around a badass sound system.”

The sheriff squinted at me in suspicion. At last, though, she dipped her head. “Harlan,” she snapped, digging out a pair of keys from her front pocket, “go find me Vick Larsen, then head up to my office.” She plopped the keys into his hand. “There should be several area maps in the top right drawer of my desk. I’ve got a cave survey in there, too. Grab ’em all and get back here ASAP.”

“Sure thing, Sheriff,” Harlan said, with a dip of his chin.

“Okay, Yancy,” the sheriff said, fixing me with a hard-eyed death stare. “I feel like I’ve been pretty damn cooperative, considering the circumstances, but now I want you to tell me what you know.”

So I told her, giving her the details Cassius had passed on to me. Harlan came back a few minutes later with an armful of maps and a burly bearded man in coveralls, who I assumed was Vick. “Alright,” I said as Harlan unfolded the maps on the round table, “this is how we’re gonna beat that assclown …”

***

I squatted down, fingers trailing over the dusty ground as I surveyed the narrow opening of a cave mouth on the outskirts of town, near a spit of water the locals called Mill Pond. The cave entrance wasn’t much more than a tight fissure in the rocky face of a barely there hill peppered with trees. “You’re sure this is the place?” I asked Harlan, who stood to my right, a compact M4 with a broomstick slung across his body on a tactical sling.

“It’s bigger than it looks,” he replied evenly, eyes picking over the map in his hands. “The entry’s tight, but it oughta open up into a pretty good size cavern not too far in. Place don’t go real deep, but there’s nothing else in the area. If you’re right and Piper’s holed up in a cave, then it’s here or nowhere.”

“Is it big enough to hold forty or fifty kids?” I asked.

He shrugged. “You ever been in there?” Harlan asked, turning toward the sheriff, who was lingering just behind him.

“Once,” she replied, grip tightening on the heavy-duty bolt cutters in her hands. “Long time ago, though, back when I was still in high school—local kids come out here sometimes to drink beer and fool around. At least that’s why I came out here in high school.”

“Well,” Harlan said with a drawl, “I guess we just need to take a looksee, then we’ll know for sure.”

“Yeah, alright.” I stood, brushing my hands against my jeans before turning back toward the coverall-clad Vick, our car audio-system expert. “You hooked up and ready to rock?” I asked, nervously eyeing the substantial set of speakers and subwoofers positioned around a Valentine patrol car. The Camino’s sound system—a truly heartbreaking sight. I ran a hand through my hair and took a great big ol’ breath, tearing my eyes away from the damage. If my hunch about Piper was wrong, I could be setting myself up for colossal, certain-death failure. And not just me. If I called this wrong, Harlan and Sheriff Copeman might end up equally dead.

The greatest casualty of all, though, would still be my poor car.

Vick nodded at me, then turned his face and spit into the dirt—a big ol’ brown blob of chew-laced saliva. “Everything’s good as you’re gonna get ’em,” he said solemnly, then rubbed a thick, scar-laden hand over one of the black boxes. A pet lover admiring someone else’s dog.

“Well, I guess there’s no way to put this off any longer,” I said. “Let’s just get this shit over and done with.” I clapped Harlan on the shoulder, then set off. I slid my pistol—freshly reloaded—free from its holster and conjured a wavering orb of soft blue light, which floated an inch above my outstretched left palm. Harlan eyed the little working askew, still clearly uncomfortable with all the wonky supernatural bullshit. “Sheriff”—I glanced at the salty law-woman—“no matter how things go down in there, you work on getting those kids out, trackin’?”

She nodded, face hardening in resolve.

“Groovy. Sheriff, you’re behind me, Harlan, you’ve got our six.” Without waiting for a reply, I set off, wiggling through the slash in the rocky outcropping and pushing inward. The tunnel, if you could call it that, was a tight, claustrophobic thing, big enough to accommodate me, but just barely. After about ten feet of pressing rock, though, I squeezed into a rough passageway, maybe five feet wide and seven high, that cut deeper into the hillside before curving away. I trudged on, movements slow, careful, quiet, ears straining to hear anything while my blue orb battled against the gloom of the cave’s interior.

“Trying for stealth at this point is futile, Mr. Lazarus,” came Piper’s voice from somewhere up ahead, the words oddly distorted as they reverberated off the stone walls. “This particular cave carries sound exceptionally well, so your arrival hasn’t gone unnoticed.”

I crept forward another few feet, goosebumps breaking out along my arms.

The passage led to an irregular room—three or four thousand square feet—just as Harlan had predicted. Greasy firelight, burning from a handful of rusty miner lamps propped up on old crates, illuminated the rough-walled cavern, casting flickering shadows over everything. Along the right-hand side of the cave was a series of cages: beastly things of thick rebar, locked with even thicker chains, containing kids.

Lots of kids.

A good chunk of Valentine’s young folk had been sorted more or less by age, then rudely crammed together, with no room to fully sit and certainly not enough to sleep. Each cage had a plastic bucket in the corner, which must’ve served as a shitter. The children themselves were dirty and hollow eyed, their cheeks gaunt, hair disheveled, skin sickly and pale. And they were quiet; not a one of ’em made so much as a peep. No one cried out for help or shouted in protest. No one banged a fist against the prison bars.

They had the look of coma patients, which meant they were in a trance of some sort—probably part of the binding ritual, attaching their minds to the changelings that’d stolen their identities.

And speaking of the changelings, they were present and accounted for, too. Yay for me. Piper sat on a rickety wooden rocking chair like it was a grand throne, and spreading out around him in a loose semicircle were his kids. None of ’em had bothered to don their flesh-suits or hide their disgusting, unnatural appearance.

“I was afraid you’d do something irrational,” Piper said, giving me a lopsided grin as he tented his fingers. “That’s what my kith and kin all say about you. That you have more misguided virtue than common sense. Still”—he paused, picking up his flute, running slender fingers over the carefully carved leaves and vines—“I wonder what you hope to accomplish here? Look around, Lazarus, and tell me how you think to seize victory. You’re badly outnumbered and the terrain favors me and mine. So, last chance, turn around and take your lackeys with you. Leave my brood be, or perish.”

“A lot of supernatural shitbirds bigger and tougher than you have made that same threat,” I replied with an indifferent shrug, “but here I am, alive, kicking, and getting ready to turn your family into meat-paste. So, I’ll make you the same generous offer. Stop now, leave those kids alone”—I jerked my head toward the cages—“tuck your tail between your legs and run, and I won’t turn you into something I can sweep up in a dustpan, comprende?”

“Ah.” Piper’s grin faded, vanished. “And so we’ve arrived at that unfortunate impasse I spoke of earlier.” He raised the flute to his chin, ready to play. “How do you propose we proceed, Laz—”

Pop-pop. I didn’t let him finish the sentence, firing a pair of rounds his way while I broke left.

In a blink, Piper had that stupid flute to his lips; shrill licks of music swirled and twirled, echoing through the room, battering at my ears and senses. A shimmering wall of twisting green light—shifting in hue from emerald to jade—exploded before him, the hasty construct intercepting my slugs with brilliant flashes before they could sink home and end Piper. Simultaneously, the changelings sprang to life, surging forward in howling rage in response to Piper’s music.

Gunfire erupted from my right as Harlan opened up on the charging doom beasts, placing precise groupings into the mass of pale bodies.

I hooked left, squeezing off a few more rounds, capping the Pasty-faces nearest to me. “Get the locks off,” I yelled at Sheriff Copeman.

What I really needed to do was call up a whirlwind of flame and roast all these sons of bitches wholesale, but I couldn’t risk it, not until we got those kids away. Changelings fell, shrieking, to the floor, limbs missing, bodies leaking out fetid blood, only to be trampled underfoot by their kin.

My pistol ran dry with a click, and I stowed it with practiced ease before drawing a Vis-imbued K-Bar at my hip—perfect for hooking and jabbing in a tight space like this. I dropped back a step, pressing my back against the jagged wall, then called up a spear of silver force, which blasted into the encroaching horde of creatures, smashing them into the ranks pressing in behind them. I glanced right: Harlan was standing near the entrance, laying down suppressive fire while the sheriff fought at the locks with her bolt cutters.

This was taking too long. Harlan was doing a damn fine job of holding back the changelings, but eventually they’d overwhelm the sheriff and that’d be endgame.

With a snarl, I drew Vis into my body, then shoved that terrible power into the ground, reaching into the deep places of the earth. The room trembled, quivered, and the dusty earth cracked as spear-shafts of granite sprouted from the floor. Sharpened javelins of rock skewered the changelings en masse, impaling emaciated torsos, ripping through arms, feet, and legs. The Pasty-faces mewled in pain as they struggled to fight free from the sudden forest of razor-sharp death.

All the while, the Piper played on, his face darkening, but his fingers never ceasing their frantic dancing—

One of the changelings broke free, a huge yawning wound in its belly, and threw itself at me. Before I could do jack-shit, jagged teeth sunk into my calf. A burst of pain lanced up from the wound, tap dancing its way through my body. Holy horsecrap, did that smart. With a howl, I lashed out with the K-Bar, stabbing down into the creature’s skull, sinking the blade to the hilt. I jerked the knife free and booted the suddenly limp corpse away from me.

I took a quick peek out of the corner of my eye: Sheriff Copeman had gotten the locks and chains off the cages, but despite the cage doors hanging wide open, the kids didn’t move. Didn’t try to run. Piper—his damned music was filling up their heads, bewitching them into obedience. “Call Vick!” I shouted, limping right, positioning myself in front of flute-playing asshole in the Stetson. The sheriff tilted her head and spoke into the radio at her shoulder.

Piper, still protected by his conjured force shield, regarded me with cool hate.

A second later sound blared around us—an up-tempo track, à la Eric Clapton. Hard bopping piano runs and silky-smooth guitar riffs rattled the walls with thunderous volume. Piper continued to puff away at his stupid flute, but the noise was drowned out by Clapton belting out the lyrics to “Sweet Home Chicago.” A nasty smile, mean and feral, broke across my face as the caged kids came to themselves, the Piper’s musical spell broken by the sheer awesomeness of the blues.

It took only a handful of seconds for Sheriff Copeman and Harlan to evacuate the captives, ushering ’em out in a panicked rush. By then, the changelings were finally starting to pull themselves free from the spears of rock and regroup, but it was a damn-bit too late for that to matter. I slipped over to the tunnel entry, keeping my back pressed against the wall. Finally, Piper stopped playing, horror dawning on his pinched face as he realized how fundamentally screwed he was. I stowed the K-Bar, flipped him the bird as Clapton played on, then threw out both hands, unleashing a wall of flame that burned like the inside of a friggin’ volcano.

Piper caught fire, his arms waving madly as he stood and rushed me. I conjured another hasty wall of bedrock spikes across the exit—the only exit—barring his path, consigning him to a long and, hopefully, unpleasant death. Asshole. I gave him a small wave, bye-bye, and turned away as he and his body-snatching brood burned, cloying smoke wafting up behind me, awful heat beating at my back.

Good riddance.

***

I puttered down Main Street, more Clapton washing over me, pouring from the open windows as I rolled along, puffing on a well-deserved cigarette. Vick had done a masterful job getting the speakers back in. I glanced up to my rearview mirror, caught a glimpse of Harlan and the sheriff waving at me. I stuck a hand out the window, returned the gesture, then put my foot to the pedal.

***

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