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urban fantasy


Blood Brothers (fragment)

Author's Note: Here's something no one's seen before. It's the start of a novel with the working title, Blood Brothers. I keep dragging it out now and then and rewriting it, but its topics -- psychics, serial murders, and vampires -- just seem trite to me. I've not yet come up with a twist I feel is really gripping or original. Still, there's some potential in it and I hope the real meat of the story leaps out at me one day. Enjoy this taste, for now:

Blood Brothers, Chapter One (partial)

           Madison’s phone went off right as the students started leaving her last class. She jumped at the unexpected sound, then furiously blushed, hoping no one noticed.  Normally she turned her phone off during lectures. She had a strict rule that her students do the same. She must have forgotten, but maybe it was for the best. It was hard to mistake detective Fazio’s ringtone. It wasn’t a call she should miss.

“I’ll be right with you,” she said to the small knot of students gathering to ask her questions. She still hadn’t gotten used to being center stage in an entire room full of young adults, and it was worse when half a dozen of them mobbed her at the end of a lecture. She tried not to look nervous, but still managed to fidget with her straight blonde hair, tucking a loose strand of it behind one ear. She smiled apologetically. “I have to take this call.”

She ducked quickly out of the classroom and tried to find some relative privacy a little ways down the hall. Snapping open her little phone, she said, “Hey, Joe. What’s up?”

“Maddy!” Fazio’s full-throated voice greeted her from the other end. “I got clearance to bring you in on a case. You got time for a trip to the Southside?”

Madison chewed her lip as she paced. “Well, I need to stop by my office and put a few things away,” she said. “But sure. I can make it. How soon do you need me?”

She heard Fazio cover the phone and say a few things to somebody else. The words were muffled, but the emotion still translated. Cases with Fazio were never good, but something about this one seemed to have ruffled him more than usual. After a moment, he took his hand away from the receiver and said, “How fast can you get here, kid?”

“It’s five-thirty on a Wednesday in Chicago, Joe,” Madison remarked. “What do you think? How far is it on the Southside?”

“A couple of streets over from the old Union Stockyards,” he replied. “Take the Pershing exit, then hang a right --”

“Hang on, Joe,” she said. “Let me grab a pen. Just give me the address and I’ll GPS it. I always get lost when you give me directions.”

“Now whose fault is that?” the detective teased. “No one else has trouble with my directions.”

“Well, no one else is me, Joe,” Madison replied. “Give me the address and I’ll get there faster than if you try to give me some kind of short cut.” She stepped back into the classroom as she spoke, going to the podium where she had left her notes. She rummaged through the papers there, trying to come up with a pen.

“Fine, fine,” Fazio grumbled. “Though I don’t know why you can’t pick it out of my head.”

Madison laughed. “You know it doesn’t work that way,” she said. “Not usually.” She made a frustrated sound as she gave up looking for a pen among the stack of papers. She bent down to her over-sized purse instead. Hair swinging forward, she pressed the phone to her ear with one hand and tried simultaneously to rummage for a writing utensil and keep the hair out of her eyes with the other. One of the students still waiting to talk with her figured out what she was looking for and helpfully offered his own pen. It took Madison a few heartbeats to realize that he was holding it out to her. She took it, smiled gratefully, and went back to the podium where she could jot down the address.

“You only got to deal with me and two uniforms once you get here,” Joe said. “Mike headed back to start the paperwork.”

“I don’t think your partner likes me very much,” Madison observed as she folded up the paper with the address and slipped it into the pocket of her slacks.

“Staunton?” Fazio laughed. “Don’t take it personal, kid. He doesn’t like anyone very much. Of course, another decade of doing this work, I don’t know how friendly I’ll be either.”

“I don’t want to think about it. You’re a barrel of sunshine already, and you’ve only been working homicide for three years,” she replied. “Look, I’ve got to finish up here before I hit the road. I’ll be there as fast as I can, Joe.”

She could almost hear his curt nod on the other end of the phone. “See you soon,” he said, then hung up.

She flipped shut the phone, then turned to the young man who had handed her the pen. Belatedly, she realized that all the other students had wandered off during her phone conversation. This guy was the only one left. He looked as nervous to want to talk to her as she often felt being the focus of so many questions.

“Brian Larson, right?” Madison asked.

He nodded, hugging a notebook to his chest. He had clear brown eyes and a complexion that suggested some sort of mixed ancestry, though she couldn’t guess what. Whatever it was, it didn’t help him with facial hair. He was trying, unsuccessfully, to grow a beard and goatee. Mostly, it looked like he had some dirt on his upper lip. She found the sheer awkwardness of it endearing.

Lightly, she said, “You wanted to know if I really meant for you to read all of The Power of Myth and the Huston Smith chapters between now and Friday." She didn't give him a chance to speak. “And the answer is yes.” In anticipation of his objection, Madison continued, “Moyer’s book is a really quick read. I promise you’ll enjoy it. There are even pictures.”

Brian Larson blinked. “But Miss Altmore,” he responded. “How did you know what I was going to ask you?”

Madison smiled, her green-flecked eyes dancing merrily. “Of course because I’m psychic,” she said. “And thanks for the pen.”

He took it as she held it out, then slipped it absently into a rear pocket of his jeans. He looked like he was going to ask something else, but she stopped him, tapping the faceplate of her phone.

“I’d love to chat some more,” she said, “But you’ll have to catch up with me during office hours tomorrow. Right now, I’ve got a date with a corpse.”

*                      *                      *

As it turned out, the corpse was long gone by the time Madison arrived at the crime scene. So were the guys from the coroner’s office, and so were all of the forensic techs. As Madison found parking and walked up to the run-down apartment building, the only official cars left were Fazio’s beat-up Ford Taurus and one lonely cop car, parked near a fire hydrant by the curb.

Madison was a little surprised to find an honest-to-goodness apartment building in this part of town. Most of the apartments in the area were converted houses, two or three stories at most with fenced-in entrances only a little ways from the street. The apartment building stood out from everything else, a dingy glass and concrete cube with stark lines that couldn’t be softened by any of the surrounding trees. A high metal fence with vertical bars surrounded the whole complex, making it seem more like a prison than a residence. Given the relative poverty of the area, Madison suspected that, for some who lived there, it was.

Unsurprisingly, the grounds weren’t well-kept. Sheets of old newspapers and tattered plastic bags had fetched up against the fence, tangling in the lower branches of the trees. The aluminum casing of a used whippet shone dully in the gutter and Madison stepped around what looked like the torn end of a used condom on a broken slab of sidewalk. She grimaced. Of course she had to wear her open-toed pumps today.

“Oh, Joe,” she muttered to herself, “the places you take a girl.”

She paused at the front entrance, trying to recall the apartment number so she could buzz to be let in. 531 was the number she’d scribbled down during her phone conversation over an hour before. Of course, most of the numbers on the wall were illegible. Belatedly, she realized that the security lock on the second set of doors had been busted out long ago. So she let herself in, striding past two residents who loitered in the downstairs hall. They eyed her suspiciously as she walked by, her crisp burgundy pantsuit in sharp contrast to their stained hoodies and sweatpants. She found the elevator and headed up to the fifth floor. Despite some colorful graffiti on its ceiling and walls, the elevator seemed well-maintained. It was the first sign that anyone cared about things in this apartment building at all. As the elevator trundled up past the other floors, Madison dug in her purse for her ID card. She slipped the lanyard around her neck, fidgeting with it as she waited for the doors to open.

The moment she stepped out onto the fifth floor hallway, she was assaulted by the smell. It wasn’t the usual grease-and-cigarette stench she might expect in a residence like this. This was the scent of death, pure and simple. A primal part of her brain reacted instantly, making her heart race and her stomach seize up in knots. She tried to breathe through her mouth to alleviate some of the stink, but that didn’t help very much. If anything, it made things worse, because now she could practically taste the sickly-sweet rot of the corpse.

Perhaps in response to the smell, the hallway was empty. Of course, given the neighborhood they were in, Madison suspected that the neighbors weren’t being curious more out of a desire to avoid any personal interactions with the police. She wondered how long it had taken them to report the murder. You didn’t get a stink like this from a body sitting over night.

A couple of uniformed officers stood at the far end of the hall, keeping watch over the only open door. Clutching the little ID badge she had for such occasions, Maddy cautiously approached the two uniforms. She didn’t recognize either of them. Before she could launch into any awkward introductions, Fazio stepped through the doorway and into the hall. He was chewing on a toothpick, a habit he’d picked up ever since he stopped smoking a few years back. He plucked the toothpick from his mouth and greeted her.

“Maddy! Glad you could make it on such short notice,” he said. “Sorry about the smell. Decomp like this, the stench pretty much soaks into the walls, not to mention to rugs and the floorboards,” he added cheerfully, fiddling with his toothpick. His tone was light-hearted, but his dark eyes were shadowed and worn.

Madison tried to repress a shudder. “Thanks,” she told him. “I get the picture. So what’s special about this one?”

Detective Fazio’s face grew serious. He glanced furtively at the two uniforms and said, “Well, we probably should have called you in on one of the others first.”

“Others?” Maddy asked. “You mean this isn’t the first one?”

Again, Fazio’s eyes flicked over to the two silent men standing near his side. Madison knew that look, and Fazio was going to have some serious explaining to do once they were away from the crime scene and out of earshot of the other cops. She hated it when he kept things from her.

“We had these other two murders with ritualistic elements,” Fazio began. “The first victim was a gay stripper. The second one was a transsexual. We figured the ritual elements were just window dressing and the murders were really sexually motivated. Hate crimes, maybe.” He stopped, cleared his throat, and shrugged. “After this one, we’re going to have to rethink that theory. This victim was a woman. By all accounts, straight. And she was black. The other two were white. I don’t need to tell you how unusual it is for serial types to switch the race or gender of their victims.”

“Three murders and you already think it’s a serial case?” she wondered. “What the hell’s past that door, Fazio?”

“Well,” he said, rocking back on his heels, “I was hoping you’d be able to tell me, Ms. Professor.”

Fazio stepped aside and motioned her into through the door. She could feel the eyes of the other two cops boring holes in her back the minute she entered the crime scene. She had been called in on cases with the Chicago police before, mainly because they didn’t bother employing an occult specialist of their own. It’s not as if they got a huge number of occult-oriented crimes in the city. Most of the cases Fazio pulled her in on involved teenagers who were using occult images like upside-down pentagrams to make their otherwise ordinary crimes seem weird and scary. But every once in a while, Fazio made an excuse to call her in on crimes that didn’t have such an obvious occult twist. From the way those two stone-faced cops were glaring at her, Maddy wondered how much the other officers had guessed of her real purpose at those investigations. Despite the image portrayed by a few New Agey TV shows, most cops resented having a psychic called in on their cases.

She needn’t have worried about the presence of an occult element at this particular crime scene, however. The minute she got far enough into the room to see past the couch, the circle was unmistakable...

--M. Belanger



Newsclipping Prop: Wheatley's Legacy

Note to readers: this little blurb was mocked up as a newspaper clipping for players to discover if they thought to go looking for old articles on the haunted Wheatley mansion in-game. This clipping gave them the name of Roderick Kemp, which they could then follow up on to discover the memoir previously printed here. The mock newspaper, The Voice of Providence was a long-running prop in the game (I started the Providence game as a table-top adventure while still in college, then moved it to a Live Action game in 1994. The chronicle was featured at Origins 1995, 1996 and 2000. You've not GM'd till you've wrangled nearly 200 players for four long days. The game ran all night, and sometimes players would track us down to our hotel room to go over puzzles they were trying to solve in-game. Creating both characters and plots with enough depth to occupy people for that length of time engenders a special kind of madness. Still, I miss it some days).

(continued from page 2)

Deputy Roderick Kemp made the grisly discovery on a sultry afternoon in the summer of 1875. The corpses included the body of Detective Solomon Godwin, 35, Arnold Powell, a drifter, and young Kevin Blackwell, an eleven-year-old-boy who had been missing since March of that year.

Dr. Jacob Frost, the Providence coroner, worked hard to identify the remains of the other bodies, however, in most cases, decomposition was so advanced that identification was impossible. In all, the remains of at least fifteen individuals were discovered in the home, which, by all appearances, had been abandoned for at least two weeks. No sign of Whately himself was ever found, although it was the opinion of the Providence police that Whately was dead.

Since the house became the scene of one of the most dreadful murder cases Providence has ever seen, it has stood abandoned on its lot not far from the Kirkwood Cemetery. Many tales have grown up around the house, including a persistent rumor that Old Man Whately haunts the property, protecting his hidden gold. The rumor of hidden treasure associated with the house came about from the fact that Whately, the eldest of five siblings, was the sole inheritor of the Whately fortune. Despite this, Whately lived a relatively simple live, remaining in the seclusion of his home and coming into town only to buy supplies every two or three weeks. On these occasions, he was often observed wearing the same patched and soiled set of clothes, with wild, unkempt hair and beard. To all appearances, he lived in poverty, which of course begged the question of what happened to the family fortune.

In twenty-five years, the mystery has never been solved, but it has become a rite of passage for some of the daring young men of Providence to invade the abandoned home, particularly on nights of the full moon, to dare the specter of Whately to manifest and drive them from his house of horrors.





Excerpt: The Wheatley Place

Note to Readers: a major outlet for my creative writing has always been gaming. I've been writing and running games since I was first introduced to D&D in fourth grade. The sword & sorcery worlds were fun and all, but what ended up really grabbing me was the urban fantasy setting of Vampire: the Masquerade. I liked the intersection of real world grit and supernatural elements. In fact, it reminded me a lot of Lovecraft's work, and for my long-running chronicle Providence, I freely mixed and mingled Lovecraftian elements with White Wolf's World of Darkness.  One thing that has always delighted me with writing and running games is designing props -- little clues and gimmes in the game that characters can explore to expand the plot threads. I've produced whole newspaper mock-ups just to have my players go digging through them for one salient article. Maps, journals, excerpts of books ... and it's all great fun. Attached here is one such game prop produced for the Providence reunion game I ran at Oberlin college a couple of years ago. It's a partial chapter from the memoirs of one of the town's law enforcement officers, and it expands upon the tale of a house characters encounter that is reputed to be haunted. As you read, you'll see why:

Guided by Providence: The Memoirs of Roderick Kemp

 Chapter Five: The Wheatley Place

Now, this was an investigation that I was involved in back in 1875. It’s twenty-five years after the fact, and I will carry the details of this investigation to my grave. In all my days working in law enforcement, I never saw anything so awful, and I thank God every day that I never encountered anything like it since. Some nights, I still wake up seeing scenes from the inside of that house. I knew Thomas Wheatley. Not real good, but I had seen him now and again, growing up. I don’t know how a man can become such a monster, but Thomas Wheatley was a kind of evil that should never walk the earth.

Well, you’re not all reading this to listen to me proselytize about man’s inhumanity to man or to conjecture about the metaphysical nature of evil. No, you want the gory details. Well believe me, they're gory! If there are any ladies reading this, or folks with a delicate constitution, you all may want to just skip along. Still with me? Well, here goes:

Everyone knew that Old Man Wheatley was up to no good. But since he kept to himself and rarely went out of his house, no one bothered to really call him on it. There were a couple of incidents involving missing persons that a detective Godwin tried to trace back to the Wheatley house, but his investigations went nowhere. And then Godwin himself went missing, and no one seemed brave enough to suggest that maybe this disappearance was also tied to Wheatley. Godwin was a good man, and a few of us on the Providence force, we kept niggling at the case, trying to get someone to do some honest-to-goodness investigation into the issue. But nothing ever went forward. Maybe he paid people off. I don’t know, and I don’t care to think about it now. Whatever it was, no one was ever brave enough to confront Wheatley directly.

In the end, Wheatley's true crimes were not revealed because the old man was caught. His crimes came to light because Wheatley himself mysteriously disappeared. And, eventually, the stench coming from his abandoned house became too much for the neighbors, even though there was a good amount of space between them & the Wheatley house.

A reluctant deputy was sent to check on Wheatley at his property. He found that the front door was sagging open and a terrible stench wafted out on the summer air. The buzzing of flies was audible through that open door, so loud that the deputy at first thought some kind of machine was on inside the house, running. There were no lights on in the old house, and most of the windows were covered over with heavy cloth. Most of this cloth was nailed directly into the walls around the windows. When the deputy yanked the first of these makeshift window covers off to let in some afternoon sunshine through the streaked and yellowed glass, he found himself staring at the most macabre scene he had ever witnessed. Shortly after that, he was just staring at the gravel on Wheatley's driveway, as the poor deputy knelt, hunched over, puking his guts out. Of course, by now, you all know that reluctant deputy was me, Roderick Kemp, though back then everyone called me Roddy. I thought the smell was the worst thing I’d ever been exposed to, but that was before I cleared off the windows and got a good look at what was causing that smell. Hell could never look so grim as that house on that June afternoon.

Inside the parlour, arranged in chairs as if they were just over for tea, were three corpses. They were well-preserved -- almost mummified. One of them was the missing detective. One of them was Arnold Powell,* a drifter. One was a woman, never identified.

Five more corpses, similarly preserved and staged throughout the house were discovered. The most unsettling of these was the corpse of Kevin Blackwell, a young boy eleven years of age. He was in that attic. Wheatley (it could only have been Wheatley) had strung the boy from the rafters. He had also painstakingly fashioned wings for the child, cobbling them together with the bones and feathers of several birds, as well as a few bones from a human -- never identified -- who left no other remains in the house.

The stench of rot came from the basement. Wheatley's most recent victims were in a jumble down there. Dr. Jacob Frost, the Providence Coroner at the time, identified the parts of at least seven bodies in the festering abattoir that lay beneath the rickety wooden stairs. A bathtub with saws and other implements as well as a worktable with needle, thread, and some taxidermy equipment, suggested that Wheatley had been planning to put these corpses together in much the same fashion as the others -- only he seems to have been interrupted.

No sign of Wheatley himself was ever discovered. He must have been dead. I made a thorough search of the house – and I’m not too proud to admit that I had to make that search in pieces, as I had to vacate the premises on more than one occasion to vomit in the yard. After a while, I wasn’t even bringing anything up, but that didn’t stop the smell and the horror of it all from getting to me. Like I said at the outset, I never saw anything like it in all of my years, and I am happy to have never encountered anything so terrible ever again. We never did figure out who all of those body parts in the basement belonged to. Frost, the coroner at the time, he did his best, working late nights to piece the bodies together. But even he had to admit defeat, and Frost was a smart man. Scary smart, though some called him crazy. I think that was just because he preferred to always work at night and he spent so many long hours locked away with the corpses. But my insights on Dr. Jacob Frost – well, that’s all material for another chapter.

*Author's Note: If you're up on your vampire folklore, you'll recognize this name as an homage to one of the first recorded cases of vampire attacks in Eastern Europe. Yay Easter eggs.



Invitation: The Door

Every night, she took the same path home from work: a block to the subway, then out and past the all-night deli (sometimes she stopped in for a sandwich), then three more blocks to her home. She often worked late. A woman walking alone at night learns to pay attention. Not that it was a bad city, but you never know. Still, she was familiar with every brick and every alley, every shop, open or closed. And that was why it was so startling to her, this new door. She had passed this particular alley a hundred times. Certainly more. Never had she seen it, not in the watery light of a warm summer evening, nor when the radiance of the streetlamps glittered off winter's slush and snow.

It was below street level. Stairs led down to a sheltered entryway sealed with an old wooden door. It wasn't cheap wood, either, but something dark and glossy, carved in places with a pattern of scrollwork and what might have been vines.

No, she was certain she would have seen that before. You didn't see doors like that anymore. Everything was metal or something pretending to be wood, always bland and anonymous, as if encouraging the eye to glide past, the mind to ignore the invitation inherent in any door.

But this door - where did it lead? And what was it for? The building on that side of the alley was commercial -- a warehouse, maybe, or an old storefront. She had never seen it open, and the windows on the bottom two levels had been bricked in long ago. That's all it was -- an old, crumbling relic of bygone industry, as ubiquitous and unsightly as a dumpster.

And now this door. A faint light shone over the entryway, making it possible to see the stairs leading down, but failing to completely dispell the cloying shadows. The light didn't perfectly illumine the scroll-work either, and she had only an imperfect impression of it from where she stood. The door itself was perhaps ten feet down the narrow alley, past papers and cans and trash. Far enough that the headlamps of the cabs that jockeyed endlessly on the street beside her did not quite reach it, close enough to know that it had not been there yesterday, nor the day before.

Just as suddenly as noticing the door, she became aware of a restlessness in her life, scrabbling against the tedium of her endless routine. As surely as the door existed, there existed in her a yearning for something more.

She hesitated only briefly. Then she ducked down the alley and swiftly descended the stairs. Gripping the handle in one trembling hand, she opened the door.

-- M. Belanger




She knew not to drink the water. Nothing except what came in sealed bottles. Don't even brush your teeth with it, friends warned. There was no telling what might be carried through the antiquated pipes. Alcohol was best, which suited her just fine. Made the entire business trip pass by in a blissful haze. Her clients didn't seem to mind - they conducted business in restaurants and bars, all their deals concluded over drinks.

She washed her hands religiously. Never could be too careful in a country such as this. Filth in the streets and everywhere. One of the restaurants she caught a busboy sleeping on one of the back tables. When she scowled at him he got up, wiping it off with an edge of his stained and sweaty shirt. Scandalous!

She knew not to drink the water, yet still she got sick. It happened at one of the nicer restaurants they took her to, on the rich end of town. The place bustled with the wealthy and well-dressed. She tried to play it off as her stomach churned around the third course of the lavish feast. Then she felt herself pale and little beads of sweat prickled across her brow.

No avoiding it then. Muttering excuses in a halting mix of languages, she slipped from the table. She had to run the last few yards to the lady's room, rushing past a startled waiter and nearly upsetting his tray.

She leaned over the sink, wretching violently. It couldn't be the water. Maybe something she ate? There'd been eggs of some kind on the hors d'oevres but they hadn't tasted quite like caviar. Should she be sick from that so soon? An allergy she hadn't known about, maybe? She could barely think, her gut was spasming so violently. She thought she was finished, and then she wretched again and again until everything was only dry heaves. Her legs trembled beneath her and her blouse stuck all over with sweat. And still that pain in her belly...

Then she did bring something up, but only part way. It was long and solid, and she could feel it still there, halfway down her throat. She tried to gasp but found she couldn't breathe around it. Panicking, not even trying to think about it, she wrapped both hands around it and started pulling. She continued to wretch around it until finally the thing came free, the whole wet length of it coiling at the bottom of the sink.

What the hell?!?

Disgusted and amazed, she reached down to poke at it. There was no resemblance at all between this long, twisting thing and anything she could have eaten. It resembled nothing so much as a snake --

And that was when its eyes opened and it wrapped itself around her wrist faster than she could think.


She cried out in her head, but her throat was so raw from bringing up this impossible monstrosity that no audible words passed her lips.


And that was it. The commanding imperative resounded not through the bathroom, with any sound perceived by her ears. Instead, she heard the voice inside her head. With an impossible certainty, she knew the voice came from this thing.

She looked down at the aberration wrapped about her arm. Its tail twined tight against her flesh. Underneath a sheath of mucus and slime, it had hard, sharp scales. The tail was sectioned, and the edges bit into her skin, spikey cilia pricking her untl she bled.

And yet a strange ease washed over her even as she watched it wrap itself up her arm. A spike at the tail sank into her flesh at the elbow, and this must have carried some toxin into her system. Everything was going all light and dreamy and she hardly felt the need to object to the presence of this hideous, impossible thing.

The head was plastered over her hand, and then it twisted, looking up at her. It had a grotesque little face, complete with a pointed grey beard. It regarded her with eyes that were a strange mix of reptile and human.

"Are we done panicking now? Can we get down to business?" That incredible non-voice ringing beyond her ears.

Swaying on her feet, Theresa could not find the desire to do anything but nod.

"Right then. Out to the kitchen. I've many eggs to lay and this restaurant is brimming with hosts."

It grinned as it burrowed into her, its little face now cupped in the palm of her hand. Wiping her mouth with a crumpled towel, she numbly turned to the door and carried out her new master's commands.

-- M. Belanger