A Time For Crows
Chapter 1: Vigilante
“Stay with me,” I said to the woman bleeding out in my car from a lung shot and romped the gas pedal harder. The engine roared, and the night’s rain sprayed up against the undercarriage.
How she was still alive, I didn’t know. But I took her blood-greased hand, warm with liquid yet cold with passing life, and squeezed. She was close to my same age, but could have been anywhere from twenty-eight to thirty-five, had red hair that hung past her chest and rich enough you could still see it, even in the dark. Her tank top was more rags than shirt, carved up from ritualized knife work cut deep into her arms and torso.
I’m just glad Jenny and I had found her in time.
Jenny drove separately. She’d done her best to help the woman, but the soul-bindings she’d tried wouldn’t hold—and some of the binders and slinkers who’d been cutting up this woman were still out there.
Red streamers of taillights whipped by, diffused in the night’s rain and glow of the street lamps. Skyscrapers loomed off to the right. Factories, intermingled with an occasional church, listed off to the left.
Come on, baby, come on! I took a bend at at least ninety, and whether from mine or someone else’s car, I smelled burned rubber, which let me tell you, doesn’t add anything to the blood stench.
For 8:18 at night, Interstate 95 was packed. My car, a ’69 Cutlass 442, drifted slightly from the turn, and the inertia tried pushing me against the leather-lined door. I had to go faster; she wasn’t going to make it—
A green compact jerked in front of me.
No time to brake.
I punched it harder, passing the guy on the left shoulder. Gravel crackled underneath the car, and the car shuddered. Jerk blared his horn at me.
“Sorry,” I said, mostly to the woman.
They still following us? I asked Eddy inside my head.
Check your mirrors again, Eddy said in his British accent, voice tight.
I did. Headlights blazed like overgrown stars–but I couldn’t really pick out much more than that.
See, some people say I’m schizophrenic; I just say they haven’t met Eddy.
It’s hard to tell, boss, Eddy said. Something’s out there though, for sure.
The woman coughed, arching up and splatting blood across her side of the windshield and dash. The makeshift seal of packaging tape over the bullet hole in her chest bubbled out, but the seal held. The blood on her side of the windshield streaked a bit as if somehow the wipers could slur through the glass and spread the blood. She dropped back against the seat. She wheezed softer now, softer. Her eyes lolled . . . rolled.
I cut back into the fast lane.
“Stay with me,” I said and shook her hand. “Don’t you dare drop off on me! Dammit, not now!” Her hand was limp in mine and cold. So cold.
“Is the shot still sealed?” I said aloud to Eddy.
Her eyes focused on me for a second before another fit of coughing took her.
Hot liquid splattered my cheek.
Disgusting, Eddy said. You know–
Is it still sealed?
Far as I can tell.
How much time she got?
I checked the map app on my phone. Could we make it in time? We were still fifteen minutes from the hospital. And if that creep weren’t following still, then my name wasn’t Joe Joyce.
Minutes, Eddy said.
I-I don’t know–
Six, seven tops.
Shit. The car shuddered from the speed. The speedometer’s needle had already flattened against the right pin.
“It’s going to be okay,” I said. “Just stay with me, alight?”
She shivered. Her breathing heightened like a chain-smoker’s staccato.
I wiped my brow and turned the heat up full blast and angled the heaters at her. The blood-reek blew hard into my nostrils, and I clenched my teeth. I’m a big guy, not massive like a Viking legend, but in good shape, and back when I was in the Order, people used to make fun of me. Smell of blood got me every time. I swallowed a lump in my throat. No puking now.
A pair of headlights weaved through cars about a quarter mile back, keeping pace with me. My skin crawled as though maggots wormed their way between my shoulder blades. There was no way–
Good gods, boss, it’s him.
How do you know?
Energy signature’s the same. I can feel it.
From that far away?
If Eddy could see something’s energy signature from that far away, then, God help us—I swallowed—we’d need it.
I dialed Jenny with my encrypted phone; then cut across to the middle lane, blowing by a semi and two compacts, then back into the fast lane.
“You there yet?” Jenny asked.
“We’re being followed—”
“Yeah, sorry,” she said. “I’d thought I’d just lured them all off.”
“Don’t be. They still on you?”
“Thought two were, but I’m not sure now.”
“Can you meet me over at East Shore’s?”
“Yes. See you soon.”
“Thanks.” I hung up and checked my mirror again. Sure enough, someone kept pace with me.
The woman choked. Stopped breathing.
“No! Wake up, lady, wake up.” I shook her hand, then leg. Nothing. So I wrapped my arm around her, and pulled her across the seat against me. She was slick and clammy. She choked, and my hand trembled. I reached for my regular phone on the dash and tried dialing 911, but my fingers kept missing the damn buttons. I finally got it, and then, I smacked my hand over the plastic seal on the woman’s chest.
She jerked, eyes popping wide, and her hands grasped mine holding the seal.
The lady choked, and frothy blood spilled down her lips.
“A woman’s been shot,” I said. “She just stopped breathing–”
“Help is on the way. Tell me what happened.”
I kept my teeth together. “She stopped breathing. I’m bringing her in. I’m on I–95. I think the shooter’s still following us–”
I missed the bone-white pillar that supported the ER overhang by centimeters. Three police cruisers screeched in behind me, two white, the other black and blue. Their sirens screamed, but fell dead as the officers piled out. The officers were quick, but I’d already hopped over my hood and scooped the woman in my arms. I kicked the door shut and sprinted toward the sliding glass doors.
“Come on, come on,” one of the officers said. Two ran along side me.
Another one yelled from inside, “She’s here.”
Tires registered to a halt behind the officers’ cars.
“Check them,” another officer said, “just to be sure.”
I looked back over my shoulder, but from the angle, couldn’t see who’d pulled up. I swallowed, and let the officers and nurses pull me inside the lobby. A wheeled bed waited just inside.
Some part of me didn’t want to let the woman go. There was magic afoot here. And even though I’ve tried my best to keep the magical and the mundane separated like church and state, she needed blood, and no matter how good Jenny was at binding, she couldn’t make more blood. But who was I kidding? I just hoped bringing her here was the right choice.
Doctors and nurses swarmed us, and before I had even taken four steps into the lobby proper, the docs had placed her on the wheeled bed. Her tattered tank top caught the leather bracelet I always wear on my right wrist and must have been just the right angle because the fabric tore even more when they took her from my arms.
Her fingers brushed mine, and my heart leaped. She was alive; dammit, she was alive. Her left eye slit open. It was green and bloodshot and glossy, but she focused on me. At least I think she did. I didn’t let go of her hand. I couldn’t.
“Teddy?” she croaked.
My heart skipped. How could she even talk?
The bed banged open a set of steel-blue doors with a yellow and orange sign on each.
“Sir,” a squat nurse with a flat nose said and barred my way. “You can’t go in here. Sir—”
I hadn’t realized I’d gone this far with them. I nodded a few times. Right. “Sorry.”
“Teddy!” The woman screamed. Her eyes met mine, wide and crazed as if begging me to stay with her. She’d reached out her left hand toward me, grasping as though by willing it, she could close the distance between us. Maybe she could—
The temperature dropped and the lights surged and buzzed. One of the fluorscent bulbs above the woman exploded in a shower of blue and yellow sparks.
One of the nurses screamed.
And the woman wailed like one of the damned, “Teddy! Teddy!”
The doctors barked orders—and then just like that, the doors swung shut, and with them came the sharp scent of ozone. The lights flickered, then stabilized. Which is when I noticed the bit of dripping steel, on the right door. It started near the middle, and ran down in two rivulets to puddle on the floor. You’d think the puddle would be the color of quicksilver, but it looked more like charcoal.
She’d used magic.
Too right she did, Eddy said.
Who was this woman?
I took a step forward, but the squat nurse who’d stopped me a second ago scooted in front of me again. “She’s in good hands. We’ll take good care of her. Okay? You can wait in the lobby if you’d like.”
The lights flickered and dimmed again, then brightened. “What about that?” I pointed at the puddle first, then shifted up toward the lights. There was nothing she could do about magic, and pointing it out would only raise neck hair and eyebrows. I knew she knew something strange had just happened, you could feel it, the residual pressure of channeled magic still in the air like little tendrils of ether made solid and manifest, tickling your skin—but—no point in forcing her to acknowledge it.
“Happens sometimes,” she said. “We’ll do the best we can for her. I promise.” She kept her cool, which said a lot.
I nodded again. “Is she—”
“We’ll do the best we can.”
“Thank you.” I took a deep breath and turned; get a grip, Joe, come on. Of course, they’d help her. But this woman had power. And why the hell had she called me Teddy? I’d never seen her before.
In life or death situations, Eddy supplied in his British accent, we often call to our loved ones.
Seemed more than a delusion to me though, you know?
Perhaps. But gods, did you see what she did with the lights?
That liquified bit of door going to be toxic to anyone?
Only if they try drinking it, which you never know, it’s possible I suppose.
See, magic is all about displacement of energy, or at least the magic I was familiar with. If you were to say, pull lightning out of seemingly nowhere, that energy has to come from somewhere, and when you take energy from something else, you’re essentially stripping electrons way past the normal loss rate, which changes the material. In this instance, it was the door, and it liquified. Do it right, and I’ve seen it where the air gets stripped of anything breathable and what’s left is a glowing cloud of plasma.
I hoped I’d made the right call in bringing her here. But where else could I have taken her? St Cyprian’s, the accorded neutral ground, was just too far away. Jenny wasn’t the best healer, but she was good—and the bindings she’d tried just slipped away. Hospital was the closest, and I reasoned would probably give us some respite from the freaks chasing us. Several of them had dressed up like cultists, but whether that was because this was a cult ritual, or to just hide their identity to which society they belonged to, I didn’t know.
The hallway I was in had glossy floors and nerve colored walls. Protective rails ran across the walls about waist high. A few nurses eyed me. One stepped forward. She was several years younger than me, probably a recent grad, wore blue scrubs and a bun tight enough to make any high-strung librarian proud. “Hey, you can’t be here–”
I just held up my hand. “Great Facebook story, huh?” And kept walking. Why the hell did I say that?
Well, because, you’re an ass, Eddy said.
I’m sure I was quite the sight—big guy in a black hoodie with blood smeared over my hands, face, and clothes. I hate looking like a freak; I don’t even like letting people see the three stacked circles tattoo on my left arm that put Eddy to sleep. I rubbed my leather bracelet and wished Ann was still with me.
I opened the double doors back to the ER lobby and stopped.
My guts squirmed.
“Hell is empty, and all the devils are here,” Eddy quoted.
Something was out there.
I caught Eddy’s reference—Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I’m an English nerd; got my BA in writing.
A few people sat in the lobby. An older man, who could fill up three seats nodded off next to his wife. They both had oxygen tanks. Another man, probably in his late thirties that I swore I recognized, sat with his legs crossed. He wore an expensive suit that somehow augmented his black beard, was extra thin, yet somehow looked extra dignified. He gave me a slight nod, then resumed his deep and dignified contemplations. A couple other people looked up at me, including the waiting officers.
But it wasn’t any of them Eddy was referring to.
I’d registered tires screeching when I’d taken the woman inside, but I hadn’t been able to see who’d come.
A dark SUV had parked behind the third cop car. The glare of the city beyond framed the SUV like a gloomy halo over a fetid cockroach. The cops’ lights bruised and shined the driver’s face, and though I was too far to see for certain, there was no mistaking his eyes were on me.
My instincts told me to run; run across the travertine floor, pass the salt aquarium and stunted potter trees and don’t look back. Freak was just waiting out there. Did he have an accomplice already inside? Or was he just waiting for me to come out and move my car? I’d finished plenty of fights—but this guy, maybe this thing? Jenny and I had tracked the woman I’d brought in to an alleyway near an abandoned church in the north part of town. I’d figured another redhead would be “offered” in that area within the next few days. So far, eleven had been murdered in various parts of the city, matching an old ritual pattern.
The cops hadn’t recognized the spell-form pattern; they recognized serial killings of twenty-five to thirty-five -year-old women with red hair. But I’d recognized the spell form. When Jenny and I had found her, two guys were carving her up, and several others, including supernaturals, had surrounded her and were chanting in a tongue I didn’t recognize. We’d taken them by surprise, me with bullets and Jenny blasting her magical bindings. And in the melee, I ended up parking my Cutlass’s front left tire on top of the guy’s chest who held the woman down, even kicked him in the head with my steel-toed boot. His long hair had sprayed out when I’d kicked him. And when I’d driven off with the girl, he’d jumped up and chased us, his long hair wraithing out behind him.
Nobody does that. Even after all my years of fighting the supernatural shit bags, I’d never seen anything that size recover so fast after being run over. Never.
Yet there he sat in that SUV he probably stole, watching, waiting.
“Said you were followed?” a detective in his mid-forties said. He pushed up from leaning against the reception desk. He had a thin mustache, big gut that stretched out a cheap suit, but kind eyes despite the fact they’d seen too much. Two others came and stood with him, each younger and more intense. Two more guarded the door.
“Yeah, dark SUV followed us,” I said. “Look, I’m probably just being paranoid, but that guy in the SUV out there—”
“We’ve checked him. He’s waiting for his wife and kid. They came in just after you. But we can check him again.”
If he hadn’t been violent when the officers checked him, he probably wouldn’t be if another officer approached him, especially with witnesses. But still—“Probably not necessary,” I said, and shook my head. “You know how it goes.”
“Stetman, double check,” the detective said and nodded to one of the junior officers standing near the glass doors.
The junior officer nodded and strode out just as the SUV began pulling out. Could have sworn the driver’s eyes never left me.
“I’m Detective McPherson,” the detective said. “You get yourself cleaned up, and we’ll talk if that’s alright.”
“Yeah, sure. Thanks.” I breathed a bit harder than I should have.
You think they’ll follow him? Eddy said.
I doubt it. Least he’s gone though. What was he?
I could have sworn Eddy shook his head, which was weird in and of itself because Eddy was just some extra-sentient spirit that never left no matter what exorcism or medication I’d tried.
Maybe some sort of binder, Eddy said, but I don’t recognize what he was juiced up on. Makes his energy patterns swirl everywhere—I get dizzy just looking at him.
You really get dizzy?
Well, I figure you probably would if you saw them, so, you know, figure of speech.
I made my way into the gray-tiled bathroom and froze when I saw the blood’s pattern on my face. No wonder the nurse tried stopping me. I hadn’t realized just how much of the woman’s coughing had made it onto my face. I’d smeared it, and the blood began drying in the exact same pattern as back when I was twenty-three, and Earl Wayne had tied me up and forced me to watch him commit suicide. I gripped my eyes tight and took a breath, forcing the memories down.