Van Novak had been standing over the body in the bed for fifteen minutes waiting for it to do something, anything other than decompose. He’d seen Danny die and revive so many times through the years that it was almost routine. Using the key he’d been given by his friend he’d learned to let himself in, get comfortable and wait for the inevitable resurrection that always followed. But something was different this time. Other than the curled plastic of a silly straw sticking in his eye there was nothing violent, nothing grotesque or sinister in this end. Lying there in bed he almost seemed peaceful, serene, as if he’d finally found his rest at long last.
Maybe he really did it, Novak thought as he stood watch over the body. Maybe that son of a bitch finally offed himself for good this time?
He was debating about how much longer to wait before calling the coroner when the alarm on the nightstand began to sing. Danny took a deep, choking gasp and sat straight up in the bed. He muttered to himself, rolled into the floor and stared for a moment at his reflection in the television. He yanked the straw out of his eye, rubbed the tiny wound until it vanished, and looked around the room.
“Damnit.” he grumbled from the foot of the bed. “How long was I down this time?”
Novak looked at his watch, back at his freshly revived friend who had crossed the short gulf between bed and bathroom counter and was hastily scribbling in a notebook.
“I’ve been here about twenty minutes so, I don’t know, all night?”
Danny nodded, mumbled something unintelligible at the detective and stepped into the bathroom. Novak listened as the water started and began to splash against the grimy tiles and scarred skin of the man inside.
“You ever thought about therapy, Danny?” Novak called through the bathroom door. “You know, work out some of these emotional issues instead of trying to kill yourself every couple of nights? Maybe a hobby? Social club?”
“Sure.” Danny hollered his reply from the shower. “My shrink will love me when I tell him how old I am and why I keep trying to kill myself. Honestly, he might even be able to write a book about it. Hobbies? I got hobbies. I track monsters and I die…a lot. And a social club? You talking golf on the back nine or swinging with you and your wife?”
“Fuck you, Dan. You know what I mean.”
“What good is talking going to do me?”
“More good than overdosing or blowing your head off every couple of nights.” Novak answered. “Hell of alot cheaper than the cleanup, too.”
The water stopped. Danny walked out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his waist. His skin was pink and warm from the scalding water he’d cleaned with and every scar on his pale flesh seemed to have found a new life glowing as they had when the wounds were still fresh. His chest was marred in bullet holes, splattered red puckers in various sizes and groupings that winked like sightless eyes out into the room. His arms, neck, and stomach were a patchwork of stabs and slashes from knives, swords, and shrapnel he’d earned over the eons. He had no nipples or belly button, no signs of his mammalian heritage visible the way you’d expect a man to look with his shirt off. He grabbed a duffel bag by the side of the bed, fished out some clothes and began to dress.
“We need to talk to the sister if we can.” Danny said, pulling a faded black t-shirt over his scarified torso.
“Well, that’s going to be a bit of a problem.” Novak said. “I called the school this morning. She quit about two months ago. Dropped out of college and gave up the teaching program entirely. She’s apparently living off a trust fund her father set up for her before his death but no one seems to have a good address for her.”
“So, what’s her last known address?”
“Same as her first.” Novak said. “Parents’ old house up on Steele Road near the school. I had a patrol car ride by to see if she was home but apparently the place has been abandoned for years.”
Danny smirked and grabbed his hat.
“Sounds like the perfect place to start.”
The house on Steele Road wasn’t what Danny or Van had anticipated as they rode down the long, winding driveway to get to it. In the middle of an older neighborhood that was a bridge between the rural outskirts and the suburbs it was the tiny centerpiece of a sprawling twelve acre estate. The house itself was a ranch style that had fallen into disrepair over the years. The roof was sagging in the middle, the awning over the porch struggling to hold itself up over a concrete slab foundation. Kudzu and weeds had begun to envelope it, to infiltrate the vinyl sides and pull it into the overgrown emerald abyss around it. The gravel driveway was a pothole saturated nightmare as the car bounced, banged and grumbled towards the house. The home and its sprawling fields were in a shallow valley surrounded by green hills and trees that made both men forget for a moment that they were still inside the city.
“I thought this place was in walking distance from the school?” Danny said as the car rolled to a stop in front of the house.
“Mailbox is less than a block from the school. It would have taken them longer to walk down this driveway every day than it would have to walk to school.” Novak said. “So, where do you want to start?”
Danny stood beside the car and looked around the edge of the basin they were standing in. Something seemed immediately off to him but he couldn’t decide what, exactly, was wrong. The storm the night before had left the air thick and cool, rich in the smell of fresh rain and honeysuckle. The sun was shining bright over the treetops and made everything glow in a verdant sparkle as it slowly consumed the dew and excess rain that had been left covering the fields and the hillsides.
“What did they do?” Danny asked. “For a living, I mean?”
Novak looked at his tablet.
“Father was in real estate. Upscale places around downtown. Mother was an art dealer of some sort. They both did pretty well for themselves from what I can tell. After Denise went missing they lost their jobs, sold the place, got divorced and went their separate ways. Looks like Anna stayed with the father until he died and then bounced around with her mom until she turned eighteen.”
“Who’d they sell it to?” Danny asked.
“Arlo Gustavson,” Novak said, shaking his head. “Better known as victim number one over at the Imperial Inn Apartments. Went to foreclosure about nine months after he bought it and it’s been rotting here ever since.”
“I think we better have a look inside.” Danny said.
They walked cautiously up the crumbled pavement of the car port and the small sidewalk leading around to the front porch. Faded signs left by the town’s codes department condemning the home glared at them from every window and door. The wood on the door frame itself had been partially devoured by termites and other pests and there was a fine layer of dust where paint had chipped and fallen to the floor. Novak reached for the doorknob, turned it. Nothing. Despite being as dilapidated as it was, someone had made sure that the locks remained firm. He shrugged to Danny and pulled out his phone.
“I’ve got a number for the bank that owns it,” he said, scrolling through the contacts. “Let me call and see if they’ve got a key.”
Danny shook his head. Turning around he drew back his right leg and mule kicked the door just below the knob. The house shook, the frame splintered and the door crashed into a wall of the living room.
“Finesse.” Van said, laughing. “You just don’t have any, do you?”
“I gave it up when I got rid of modesty and shame.” Danny said, stepping inside.
The entire house smelled of mildew and rot, dust and ancient memories left behind in the stale air never to be disturbed again. There were still a few pieces of furniture inside. A chair here, a small table there, a vase sitting in the corner with the wilted, mummified remains of the orchids it had held. Novak pulled out a flashlight and wandered into the kitchen while Danny wandered slowly down the hallway. The sense of unease, the disquiet he couldn’t quite place was worse now as he came across a door with a name painted in faded pink bubble letters. Denise was barely visible in the dingy white wood. The hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end, an electricity prickling along his spine as he thought about opening it. There was an animalistic sense of danger, instinct screaming at him to walk away.
He placed his hand on the dust covered name and found himself listening to the echo of her laughter. Turning the knob he stepped into a room that was blacker than the poorly lit hallway. The window on the far wall had been boarded up and covered with a tarp. He pulled his lighter from his pocket and flicked the flint. It sparked once, twice, flamed to life in a flickering orange glow that allowed him to see just barely in front of his face. Black eyes looked back at him from the darkness, yellow teeth filed to knife points slathered and glistened from a fiendish smile. Claws slashed at his face and throat until the blood sprayed in giant, dramatic arcs into the darkness. He screamed as he fell backwards into the hall. Grabbing his neck he found no wounds, no punctures or gouges in his flesh that hadn’t been there before. It had all be in his mind.
Novak came around the corner, gun drawn and immediately drew down on the darkness inside the open bedroom door.
“You okay, Dan?” he asked, eyes locked on the darkness.
“I’m good,” Danny answered breathlessly. “Had a vision, is all. We’re on to something here.”
They entered the room and immediately pulled down the boards and curtains covering the window. As the light shined in through the broken glass for the first time in years, both men regretted the decision. The floor was nothing more than boards hastily nailed together and covered in a splotch of dark brown-maroon that could only be the leftover remains of blood and violence from an age past. The walls were covered in claw marks, some animal, some human with bits of fingernail stuck where the drywall had been chewed away to reveal studs. There was a tiny wire frame bed with a thin, feculent bedroll spread out across it and a set of chains draped over it from the headboard. Under the bed was a small metal tool box with a bright red lock on the front.
“I don’t like where this is going.” Novak muttered as he leaned down to grab the tool box. “I mean, surely someone would have noticed this when they came to interview the family all those years ago.”
Danny had knelt beside the dried blood, had done the best he could with the gifts he had been given. He stood up, belched a small cloud of black from his throat and cringed at the taste of brimstone and bile that had come from his lungs.
“It wasn’t like this then.” Danny said, weakly. “This is less than a year old. I know how our first victim is related, though. We need to get that box open.”
Out by the car they found a tire iron and a hammer and went to work prying until they had broken the latch and dropped the lock onto the ground. Inside the box was a plastic case with Polaroid pictures taken by the first victim. They were dingy, dirty shots inside the tiny room of victims he had used to for his own perverse pleasures before sacrificing them to something far worse than even he could have imagined. They were all vagrants, young boys in their teens or early twenties who had likely lured to their deaths with a promise of a hot meal and a place to lay their heads. There were at least a dozen victims in the photographs, each starved and flayed in precise, methodical manners in line with rituals described in a small notebook that was buried under the case with the pictures. Most of it was written in Gaelic, Latin, and Aramaic with various other languages and translations written atop the original. There were crude sketches and diagrams drawn inside including one, a mirror ritual, to allow a creature to cross over from one world into another with the sacrifice of an innocent. It was a ritual Danny had seen performed on Denise Myers and, earlier still, on his beloved Alice.
“This is fucked up.” Novak said, lighting a cigarette as he continued to flip through the old Polaroids. “I mean, glossing over the fact that this guy was still using a Polaroid just a few years ago, I mean, look at this stuff. Have you ever seen anything like it?”
In the bottom of the tool box, wrapped in a black piece of silk, there was one final parchment. It was leather, dried and nailed to a plank of ash wood. Unwrapping it from the silk Danny lowered his head and began to sob softly.
“What’s wrong,” Novak asked.
Danny handed him the piece of flesh nailed to the board and stormed up to the house. He stepped inside and began piling furniture and debris by the hallway until he was satisfied with his work. He flicked his lighter and dropped it into the chair that served as the base for his pyre. Glaring at the flames lapping up from the pile, he waited until the mildewed carpet and dusty walls had caught before walking out into the driveway. He walked calmly back to Novak’s car and sat down on the hood, staring at his arson with pride.
“What the hell is going on?” Van shouted.
“I’m cleansing this place.” Danny was nonchalant, bordering callous as he spoke.
“Whose skin is this, Danny?”
“Mine.” he whispered. “And it’s been used for something horrible.”
“Care to elaborate?”
“There are three runes tattooed on it,” Danny said, staring into the flames. “They’re an incantation designed to use the flesh of an immortal creature to close the gates of hell. I put them on my back a long time ago when I thought that it would help. Someone’s added to them, used them to reverse the process. Someone’s trying to open a door, let something out that’s worse than either of us can imagine.”
“How could anything be worse than this?”
Danny was silent.
Novak sat down beside his friend on the hood of the car and watched the inferno climb higher into the sky. He offered him a cigarette.
“When all this is over,” he said. “You really need to see a shrink, Danny.”
“When all this is over, I’ll be happy to.”
“Are we going to talk about this?” Novak asked as the car turned out of the serpentine driveway on Steele Road. Smoke billowed up in a large black plume in the rearview mirror as he glanced up. “I mean, I would like to talk about this. I sort of need to talk about this, Danny. How did someone end up with a hunk of your skin nailed to a piece of wood and why was it locked up in some makeshift torture cave in a little girl’s bedroom?”
Danny sat in the passenger seat, stoic, arching his back a bit as he wrestled with the memory. The car braked hard and came to a stop in the middle of the road. Novak slammed the gear shift into park, turned on the blue lights hidden above the front and rear windshield and with an exasperated sigh laid his head against the back of his seat.
“You have to help me out here, Dan.” he said through gritted teeth. “I mean, I’ve got a missing kid, two dead bodies, a box full of snuff pics, and I’m now an accessory to arson in addition to the drugs we planted in that apartment yesterday. I’m neck deep in some bullshit and I still don’t have an answer to a damn thing. Well, other except for the fact that you seem to think you know what’s going on.”
He closed his eyes and began to massage his temples.
“I’ve given you a lot of good faith on this, not to mention broken some laws and ethical codes here so I’ve got to have a solid answer from you on what the hell is happening. Or else.”
“Or else what?”
There was a silence between them for a moment as Novak’s face ran through all its shades of red into an exquisite purple. Cars were driving by slowly; each one full of people craning their necks to see what was going on as they passed. Finally, calmly, the detective spoke.
“Then I guess I’ll have to take you in and book you for arson and destruction of evidence.” Novak said. “I’ll put you on suicide watch and get a seventy two hour psych hold. Then, when you finally get bored sitting in a padded room and decide to off yourself as a way to escape, I’ll see to it that they expedite the autopsy and cremate your remains. I mean, if we’re playing hardball I’m guessing you aren’t coming back from a fire.”
Danny chuckled. “I’ve burned before, son. And I’ll burn again.”
He took off his cap and ran a large hand over his scarred scalp.
“I’m old enough, Van, that I don’t actually know just how old I am.” he said. “I’ve been shot, stabbed, hanged, electrocuted, burned…hell, you name it and it’s probably been done to me at least once. I lost the love of my life to the same sort of monster that sucked that little girl into hell and is running around town making mincemeat out of every dirtbag she can find. The only solace I have is in knowing that, so far, she’s the only one who’s crawled out of that cesspit into our world in a very long time. But she won’t stay that way unless we find her and stop her.”
He took a deep, shuddering breath, then: “I have been linked to those things for as long as I can remember. They’ve tortured me, ripped apart the piece of me that you’d call my soul and left me for dead. Do you know what happens to a man without a soul? He lives forever. They pulped my bones into paper and inked them with my blood. They bound it all in my flesh and they’ve used it for who knows how long to create all sorts of grotesque horrors. Burning that place to the ground bought us some time. Van, the minute she finds a new place to defile, a new disciple to do her dirty work for her, this all starts again. More murders. More missing people. I don’t know why it wants Anna Myers but if we don’t find her first, we may not be able to save anyone in this town.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes, neither doing anything but looking at the long stretch of road ahead of them.
Finally, Danny asked: “Are we good?”
Novak killed the blue lights, put the car in gear and drove on. Another silence filled the space between the two men, a silence that seemed as if it might just last forever. They turned down city streets that led into suburbs and further out into the rural sprawl just outside of town. Finding a shady, open patch of land between houses, the car pulled in and parked. The engine was quiet.
“How did Gustavson get your skin?” Novak asked.
Danny sighed. “They have acolytes everywhere. They made him a promise they had no intention to keep and used him like a tool. When he was finished, they tied up the loose ends.”
“What do they want?” Novak asked.
“They want us to suffer.” Danny replied coldly. “They’ve shared the world with us since the beginning, out of sync with time and space as we understand it. They’re world is hell and they’re destined to share it with us unless we stop the black beast.”
“She’s the worst of them, then?”
“No.” Danny shook his head. “She and her siblings are girl scouts compared to what they serve. She feeds on your worst fears, your inner demons. She knows whatever dark secrets you’ve tried to hide and she will make you suffer for them.”
“And they get worse than her?” Van asked, lighting a cigarette.
“Lunacy, despair, rage; they all have a flavor and she works in fear but her master…” He trailed off. “We need to find Anna Myers before that thing does.”
“You’re saying she’s in imminent danger?”
“Yes, Van. She’s in imminent danger.”
“That’s all I needed to hear.”
The engine roared to life, the sirens screaming as the car sped back into town.
“We’ll put out a BOLO for her, have her brought in for questioning. We’ll make a big show out of it.”
“Why on earth are we going to do that?” Danny asked.
“Because we can flush out whatever is hunting her, make it come to us.”
“Sounds like the sort of idea that’s going to get someone killed.”
“Well, with any luck, Danny, it’ll be you.”