Clerk and Dagger

The Book of Seth

Armageddon

Chapter 1

 

I grew a tail at the east end of the airport parking lot. Eggshell-blue Mustang: not exactly subtle. It wagged behind me, hovering three cars back. Until I made it to the local black-market armory, the best I could muster for a weapon was my rented Camry’s cigarette lighter. When I hit the Rutherford Freeway I eased over to the high-occupancy lane, hoping a cop would pull one of us over. After half an hour of no such luck I opted for plan B, cranking the wheel to cut across four lanes of blasting horns and waving middle fingers to the mouth of the Jeffers Turnpike off-ramp. The Mustang overshot and I was away.

The rental’s GPS led me to Sharkey’s lair in an industrial park, above an old concrete box that used to be a factory. Fat little Sharkey led me down aisles of weaponry and I tooled up. Two Kimber 9mm pistols, a vintage World War Two Sten gun—also 9mm so I could share ammunition—and eight US Marine grenades. I gave the Sten a worried look, but Sharkey insisted it was reliable in spite of its reputation. If he vouched for it, that was good enough; in his business, selling shoddy hardware meant the friends of the poor bastard who’d bought it might show up and make things unpleasant.

The grenades were just because.

Next stop: Tim’s Diner. I found it on Center Street and parked a block down, dropped one of the Kimbers in my jacket’s inner pocket, plugged coins into the meter, and headed for a family get-together.

When I pushed the creaking door open I came face to face with a guy in a suit, little round glasses on the edge of his nose. We danced, and he stopped with a smile. “After you, sir. I recommend the breakfast special, eggs over easy with wholewheat toast.”

I brushed past the man and looked around. Nathan was eating while browsing a newspaper. I recognized him from his Facebook profile photo, right down to the two silver studs he sported in his left earlobe. He’d picked a table next to the windows, convenient for whoever had shot and blown up at least six of our half-brothers. He had eyes that looked Asian, as though his mother was Chinese. But the shape of his cheekbones was the same as for all of us, and he had the usual build: skinny, wiry. The kind of frame that makes it easy for us to be nailed to a post and lifted up. It’d be tougher to do that if we had rain-barrel physiques.

I thumped my knuckles on the table. He bounced like a rubber ball in his chair.

“Back there.” I pointed toward a table near the sign for the washrooms.

Nathan stared up at me uncomprehending.

“Seth,” I said.

“So you really came all this way.” He rustled his newspaper. “How have you been?”

“Not dead. Planning to stay that way.”

His lip curled. “Where do you get this tough-guy dialogue?”

I ignored him, strode to the back, and dropped myself into a seat at the empty table. He looked around, then slowly folded his newspaper. A man came to my table in greasy-spoon formal-wear: grimy white apron, white cap.

“Menu?”

“Sure,” I said. “And water. In a coffee cup.”

He gave me a look but brought both as Nathan slid into the seat opposite me. I waited for “Tim” to leave, then laid my hand over the cup. Steam rose between my fingers, bringing a pleasant smell of fresh coffee.

Nathan’s mouth quirked. “Parlor tricks?”

“No one else brews it this good.” I sipped. “Someone is rubbing out the brothers.”

“Like I haven’t heard. So?”

I almost spewed Sumatran dark roast with a pinch of cane sugar and cream. “That doesn’t bother you?”

“I’m out of the game. It isn’t my problem.” He peered at me a moment. “How did you find me?”

“Adam. He told me you breakfast here almost every morning before work. With a big target on your head. You’re still one of us. You could be next.”

“I’m an avowed atheist now.”

“An ‘avowed’ . . . how did you manage the kind of head trauma you’d need to make yourself believe that? Anyhow, Trent converted to Buddhism, Loren changed his name to Seeker-After-Truth and joined some sect back in Cove. Both are dead. Graeme would be too if I hadn’t been using his crapper when his apartment blew up. What makes you think whoever is killing us will care that you’re trying to swing for a different team?”

Nathan shrugged.

Tim showed up again. “Like something?”

“Sure.” I reached for the menu, then decided I was on a clock here. “The special. Eggs over easy. Wholewheat bread. And throw in some extra bacon.”

He took the menu, scratched his butt with its left corner, and passed it to a couple of women at a table farther on. Nathan laid his newspaper down and opened it at the entertainment section, pretending to ignore me.

“Mel took a bullet four days ago,” I said. “Did you hear about that?”

Nathan glanced at me over his newspaper. “How do you know it wasn’t gay-bashers? Speaking of swinging for a different team.”

“Gay-bashers take it personally, so they bash. Mel’s hit was precise. An assassination—one shot through his head. Besides, the bullet matched the gun that took out Loren back home. Whoever is doing this has moved here.”

Nathan flinched. “How do you know the bullets match? You’re a bookstore clerk, right? You don’t have connections like that.”

“I do now. I need to know where the others are.”

“I don’t keep in touch with them. Not my brother’s keeper and all that.”

“You don’t need to be beer buddies with them.”

“What if they don’t want to talk to you?”

“That’s up to them. I’ll leave messages.” I opened my jacket and reached into my shirt pocket for my day-planner. My jacket gaped enough that Nathan saw the gun in the inner pocket.

His eyes grew huge.

I thumbed my day-planner to one of the notes pages in its back and slid it to him over his newspaper, the blue Bic lying next to the spiral in its center.

“Write. Last known addresses and phone numbers.”

He started penning. I looked at the morning traffic trolling along—halting, I assumed, when the lights turned. A breeze had come up. Someone’s snack trash pirouetted past the window.

An eggshell-blue Mustang rolled by, slowing outside the glass.

My hand darted into my jacket and closed on the pistol grip. Nathan looked like his eyes would fall out and roll across the table. I glanced at him and scowled, then followed the car with my gaze until it was out of sight.

I kept my eyes on the door. Tim slid one plate from his armload onto the table as he wandered past. I tugged Nathan’s newspaper to me and drew the pistol out, setting it down with the paper making a tent over it.

“Who are you expecting?” Nathan whispered. He finally had the decency to look like his knees were turning to goo.

“Keep writing.”

I could see the butt of the Kimber under the newspaper. In particular I could see the black square hole at the bottom of its handle. I’d left the ammunition clips in the trunk of my car. That, I thought, as a chill crawled along my shoulder-blades, would save me from learning to handle a loaded gun for the first time. Wouldn’t save me from much else.

“Someone followed me from the airport,” I said.

Nathan’s eyes swelled up even bigger. “And you led them here? To me?”

“I lost them on the south side. They found you on their own. Leave.” I jutted my chin at the hallway. There was an old wooden door marked Employees Only. “Go that way. Don’t think it over, just run.”

I picked up my day-planner and slid it into my shirt pocket. Then reached under the newspaper and collected the gun, ramming it into the top of my pants—not something I’d recommend but I had no reason to worry about sending a slug through future Seth Brown Juniors.

Note to self: invest in a shoulder holster.

“I can help,” Nathan said, gaze darting to the window.

“By stopping a bullet?”

His mouth opened and closed and opened and closed. Then he reached for my plate. “Yum. Extra bacon.” Chewing like mad, he took out his wallet and dropped a twenty on the table. Apparently trying for nonchalance, he got to his feet, yawned, stretched, and sidled down the hall past the washrooms.

I headed the other way. To the front door.

First stop: the car. Six magazines in its trunk for the pistol. One would do, but the first thing I saw when I stepped out of Tim’s Diner was the Mustang pulling in across the street. I bolted into the alley beside Tim’s and crouched across from a black dumpster, gasping at the stench of something that might have been food a week ago. The gun was useless but I palmed it anyway and peered around the corner.

Sound behind me. I spun to see Nathan rabbiting away as a door swung shut. I swallowed the chunk of vital organ that had shot into my throat and peered at the street again.

A tall woman in a black suit, ash-blond hair shining, dodged traffic as she jaywalked toward me. I had expected someone pulled from the standard thug cast, not a cool, elegant hired gun. I did wonder why the assassin hadn’t picked better shoes; two-inch heels are lousy victim-chasing attire. Her route put my alley between her and the diner. Good. I waited, listening to the clip-clop as her heels neared.

When she stepped into view I grabbed her collar and swung her around me to the wall. She whined through the whole orbit. I held up the gun, and this got a reaction, though not the one I’d wanted. Hell exploded, in the form of a purse loaded with rocks walloping my skull and a foot flying at my sack. I deflected the kick. Somewhere amid the roaring in my head I felt a thump against my arm. The pistol skittered across grimy concrete.

I went for it. So did she. Like I said: heels are a bad idea. I scooped the Kimber up. She froze in place, hands out in mid reach.

Her voice might have sounded pretty if she weren’t talking into a gun muzzle. She sounded strangled. “I’ll scream.”

“I’ll shoot. That’s louder.”

She took a step back toward the mouth of the alley.

“Uh-uh. Running gets you a bullet too. Why are you following me?”

“I’m not. I’m just here to have coffee in the diner.”

“You followed me from the airport. The Mustang is yours.”

“Oh. That.” She shrugged. “My name is Kaylee Jerrel. You’ve probably seen me on channel forty-eight.”

“I don’t watch television.”

“I’m a journalist.”

That was not what I expected. I’d rather have learned she was the killer. It would have made things so much easier. Except for my having no ammunition.

Her purse lay next to me on the concrete. I stooped for it.

She stepped toward me. “Hey.”

I motioned with the pistol. “Back up, against the wall. Legs apart.”

The woman rolled her eyes and stepped back, not quite to the wall. She put her fists on her hips super-heroine style while I unzipped her purse. Inside: a small camera, a digital recorder, wallet, lipstick, a makeup compact, two tampons, loose change. I managed to flip her wallet open without dropping the gun. Barely. Yup, she was Kaylee Jerrel. Business cards tucked in with the cash said, “Channel 48: All News All Day!” in bold blue letters against a logo that I suspected was supposed to be the globe. Beside text and logo was a picture of Kaylee, hair shorter than now and forming a halo around her face.

I picked up the digital recorder and thumbed the play button.

“That’s personal.” Kaylee stepped from the wall. I motioned with the muzzle and she backed off.

Dead air. The machine’s little screen showed a list of files. I nudged the back arrow and hit play.

“October 23,” her voice on the recorder said. “Seth Brown has arrived. He is renting a car. I wish I knew what he is doing here.”

Today was October 23. I hopped the player back farther.

“October 21. Seth Brown, Apartment 901, 175 Cranberry Lane, Cove City. He works in the Wordwings Bookstore. He’s been asking questions about the Earl Munny disappearance. And about Loren LaBrecht. Google has nothing on him; he’s never put up a web site, and he keeps his Facebook page private. I’m not sure what he’s doing, but he bought a Wal-Air ticket to Summerton.”

I clicked off. “How do you know about Loren and Earl?”

Kaylee folded her arms together and raised her chin. “I have my sources.”

“I have seven rounds.” This was only technically true; they were with friends in the trunk of my car.

Her eyes rolled again. “I know you came here to find the others. Like you, all born in a certain week in April. Someone has killed fourteen of you in the past year alone.”

I knew of only eleven. I clicked the recorder again, nudging it back.

“August 30. Two more. Frank Charmer in Cove. Tom Knightly from up north. Knightly vanished weeks ago, while Charmer took a bullet last Friday. Whoever is doing this is getting more brazen as time goes on.”

I hit the button. Dammit. “How many do you know about? I mean the ones who haven’t been killed. Do you have their numbers? Addresses too?”

She gave me an arch look and crossed her arms. I thumbed my pistol’s hammer back.

Kaylee grimaced. “I’ll make you a deal. You tell me why someone would want to kill these men and I’ll tell you what I know. A straight exchange.”

“How about I shoot your kneecap?”

“How about I shoot you with my finger? It may actually be loaded.”

Blood leached into my cheeks. I glared at her, trying to figure out what to do next. When nothing came, I shrugged and tucked the gun in my pocket. Well hell. “I need to find them. Someone is hunting them down and I need to warn them.”

I tossed the purse to her. She caught it in one hand. “You’re not used to handling a gun, are you?”

“Sure I am.”

She gave me a look I couldn’t decipher. “Okay. Tell me who is doing this.”

“I haven’t a clue. That’s why I’m here.”

“Are you part of some numerology cult?”

“No.”

“A biker gang?”

“Not bikers.”

“Something political then? Or a sex scandal? Did some politician have a hell of a lot of illegitimate children?”

“No.” What the hell, I thought; this was one of those times when you just know the truth isn’t going to make any difference. “I’m the next Savior of Mankind. So are they, all those who’ve been killed.”

“Huh?”

“You know. The New Testament. Jesus Christ. Healing the sick, turning water into wine—or coffee.”

A confused look rolled around in Kaylee’s face. Then a grin spread across it. “Oh wow. A religious cult. That’s great.”

I eyed at her thoughtfully. “Why were you following me?”

“A source said you were coming to see Nathan Filman.”

“And who is your source?”

“What’s in it for me?”

I considered saying, “Breathing.” But it’s tough to keep up the strong-arm facade when the woman you’re threatening already knows you forgot to put bullets in your gun. Besides, the ass-kicking had very nearly gone badly for me. I had to wonder if the only reason she hadn’t thrashed me all over this alley was that she’d seen my pistol was empty and decided she didn’t need to bother.

“You want this story, you help me out,” I said.

“I’m still not hearing anything worth trading for.” She came to me and snatched her recorder out of my hand. Then she thumbed record and recited the date.. “I’m with Seth Brown in an alley in Summerton. Okay Seth, tell me about this cult. Are you a member?”

“Um, yes.”

“How did that happen?”

“I was born into it. Now tell me who you know and how I can find them. Then we’ll talk. Otherwise I walk away and you don’t get your story.”

Her brow creased. She glanced at the mouth of the alley, then back at me.

I turned and started walking. “Guess it isn’t all that important.”

She was next to me in a moment. “Okay, dammit. My car.”

I followed her into traffic. She glanced right and left and trotted across. A car honked its horn in a perfunctory way. When we reached the sidewalk opposite, she clicked the locks of her Mustang with her remote, reached in for a cheap red schoolkid’s notebook, and laid it open on the hood of the car.

I looked at the list. Nine names. Four of them I didn’t know. She had numbers marked home, work, cell, or fax. Kaylee Jerrel had done her homework.

She ran her finger down the list. “This is the weird part. All of them were born within five days of each other. Look: Emile, Loren, Mel, all born on April 3. Quentin, Nathan, Chase, all on April 7.” Kaylee glanced at me. “You were April 8, right?”

“At 11:52pm. Mom says I ruined her sleep.”

They say there are some events where you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when they happened. JFK’s death. The space shuttle Challenger blowing up. The Twin Towers. I can tell you exactly what I was doing when Tim’s Diner exploded: I was looking over Kaylee’s shoulder trying to concentrate on her neat handwriting while appreciating the view of her cleavage.

 

Armageddon

Chapter 2

 

The charging-elephant percussion ensemble slammed into my chest and threw me against the concrete wall. Deceased journalist Kaylee Jerrel landed nearby, a tooth-shaped shard of Tim’s front door through her chest and protruding from her back.

I lay within silence, dazed until someone ran past. Pieces of menus and plastic tablecloth and serviettes still fell like snow. Gasping, I picked myself up. A huge quantity of blood had left Kaylee and now ran in rivulets to the drain where the street met the curb. When I saw her notebook, I picked it up. The red cover had been sprayed with a darker crimson. Ugh.

My hearing was coming back online. Someone was bawling. A siren came closer. Kaylee knew more about the others in this town than I did, and it was a safe bet she had contacts I didn’t. So she had to come along.

I walked around her car. Its side windows were cracked.

Police cars, lights flashing blue, screeched into a blockade of the street in the direction her car faced. The police were already coming in behind us, too. Carrying a body seemed less problematic than getting her car out.

I turned her onto her back, put my shoe against her stomach, and pulled hard on the piece of door. It came free along with bits of Kaylee’s interior. I gathered her up and felt a shocking warmth spread across my belly.

Kaylee had lost weight. I wished she’d lost more as I carried her past dazed zombies cowering near office-building walls or wandering toward where Tim’s Diner used to be. I dumped her on the street between my rental and a minivan. The Camry’s trunk was spotless. Maybe Sharkey knew someone who could give it a proper CSI-resistant wipe-down. I moved the weapons and my travel bag aside to make room, then picked Kaylee up and dropped her in. She thumped like a sack of potatoes.

New sirens wailed. A fire truck, followed by an ambulance. I eased the car out, mulling over how to get Kaylee into my motel as I drove. Someone might ask embarrassing questions if I turned up looking like . . . well, like I had recently almost been blown up. That part could probably be explained by telling them to turn on a television, but then they might report me as a witness. Kaylee’s body could be even more problematic. Alternative plan: find somewhere else to take care of her, some place out of sight.

As I headed across the river it occurred to me that the corpse of honor was out of sight right now in my trunk.

“Well hell.” I pushed the Resurrection Button.

 

When I was five Mom took me to a pet store and had me pick out a kitten. I chose a male with gray fur and a white lightning bolt wound around his tail. I wanted to name him Fuzznuts. Mom made an executive decision and christened him Zeus. A week after my seventh birthday Zeus wandered out onto the street and under the wheels of a minivan that blew past the stop sign at the corner. I saw it happen. When I reached him he was a broken mess in a puddle of blood and snake-like intestines on the side of the street.

Zeus was my first resurrection; purely by accident.

Let’s be clear about this. It isn’t like any cheesy flick or TV show you’ve seen about people with psychic powers. You don’t moan and gasp and break into a sweat, or chant something ridiculous like, “Rise. Rise, you bastard, riiiise!”

Picture a big red button marked Resurrection. Picture yourself pushing it. Then sit down and wait; it’s out of your hands.

But don’t wander too far from the body. I discovered this the next time I had to revive Zeus (who wasn’t exactly a sage among felines). The resurrection moves out from you like a wave in a pond after a stone hits the water. During Zeus’ second return trip, I walked over to the cedar tree outside our house and sat down to wait. I’d forgotten about Hammy, buried four years before under that tree. A few minutes after I launched the resurrection there was no sign of movement in Zeus. Instead, the ground beside me began to churn, and up popped a very annoyed hamster. I picked him up, sucked my finger, caught him again, and marched back to Zeus. I pushed the Resurrection Button and this time sat on the curb beside him.

Hoo-hah! Mom threw a conniption. We’d finally sold Hammy’s cage at a garage sale two weeks before.

 

The resurrection buzzed like static in the stale air of the car. There was that change in tone that meant it had found someone or something dead: white noise rolling into a single high-pitched squealing note. As I reached the south side of the bridge, the former corpse in the back of my car started kicking and yelling. Then the trunk popped open.

Factoid: look in the trunk of any car built in the last fifteen or twenty years and you will find a little handle under the lid. That’s for people who find themselves shut inside the trunk, perhaps due to practical-joking friends or an attempt to reach that long-lost Milli Vanilli CD spotted way in the back.

“Shit.” I wheeled onto a side street at the mouth of the bridge and stomped the brake. I was in time to mostly catch Kaylee Jerrel as she threw her screaming self out onto the asphalt. Her jacket and blouse were reduced to sleeves. She dragged herself away from me to some grass next to an apartment building. “It was so beautiful,” she moaned.

“Tunnel of light? Harp music?”

“And such joy and bliss.” She clutched her arms around her middle. “Now I hurt so much, in here. Oh God.” Her gaze skipped around. “I fell. I remember falling so far.”

“I brought you back.”

Her gaze settled on me. “What does that mean?”

“You were dead. I brought you back.”

She flung herself at me without getting to her feet. “Can you send me back there?” Her hands clutched at my legs.

I tried peeling her fingers off my thighs. “No, not going to do that.”

“Please.”

“Look, you aren’t wearing anything. What do you think the cops will do if they find you on your knees in front of me with a breeze blowing through your cleavage?”

Kaylee looked down and squealed and laid her arms across her chest. I gave her my jacket, retrieving the gun from the pocket. Then I helped her to the car. Into a seat, this time. She was quiet until I settled behind the wheel.

“So I was dead.”

“That’s right.”

“How?”

“Someone blew up Tim’s Diner.”

“Oh.”

Kaylee stared at the spot marked Airbag on the dashboard. In my experience the formerly deceased were pains in the ass for half an hour after recovery. Graeme, the histrionic exception, had spent hours rambling about how he hadn’t believed there was anything on the other side. He’d been gone for less than a minute, and he’d come back yammering about this beautiful tunnel of light with weird classical music that sounded like what Mozart might compose if he’d stumbled onto cocaine. I could relate, what with swan-diving off Graeme’s balcony after his body and going splat on the pavement. I’d had a taste of the tunnel too, but I didn’t go on and on about it.

The GPS showed a large park to the south. I drove that way.

“Are you sure?” Kaylee said.

“About what?”

“Me. Being . . . you know.”

“Worm food?”

“You don’t have to be rude about it.”

She was silent for ten or fifteen minutes, staring at her hands then at the world. Then with a glance at me opened the jacket and peered down at herself. “I’m sticky.”

“That’s blood.”

“When I donate at the Red Cross, if I don’t eat I feel groggy afterward.”

“You got your supply topped up. And probably new lungs; I think pieces of those came out when I removed what was left of Tim’s front door.”

I found the turnoff into Galway Park. Our parking spot was sheltered enough that I could peel my clothes off behind the car with the trunk lid open, and use them to wipe off my reddened belly. Feeling somewhat cleaner, I put on fresh jeans and picked out a red T-shirt—just in case I’d missed some of Kaylee’s leakage.

Back in the car, I keyed in my motel’s address. It was farther south, a hole in the ground. But it was cheap.

Kaylee stared at me, then at traffic. “You meant it. That stuff about you being the Messiah.”

“Yeah.”

The Western Comfort Motel wasn’t hard to find. Someone had used black spray paint to change the first ‘o’ in Comfort to a ‘u’. I found a parking stall well away from the doors.

“Stay put,” I told Kaylee. She nodded, eyes glassy. I tucked the pistol into the back of my pants under my shirt, then headed into the lobby. The place smelled of pine cleanser and feet. A round young man with three chins sat behind the counter.

“Seth Brown,” I said. “I have a room booked.”

“Oh yeah.” He pushed a pad to me.

I filled in name, address, phone number.

Fat Boy moved like a hippo lounging in the sun, but did eventually dig out a key card from a drawer and meander through the process of sliding it across the scanner and keying the room number into it.

“Need your plate number,” he mumbled.

I filled out that part of the sheet.

Fat Boy slid the card to me. “Room 210. Elevator’s around there.” He tilted his chins.

“Thanks.”

“Oh yeah. Need your credit card.”

I reached for my wallet.

“Oh yeah. Did your friends find you?”

My shoulders turned to ice. “Friends?”

“Two guys. An hour ago. Wondered if you were here yet.”

“Um . . . missed them.”

“Said they’d be back.”

“Thanks. Must have left my card in the car.” I made a show of patting my jacket down and nudged the door open with my shoe. Soon as I was clear I did my impression of Nathan across the parking lot. My still-empty Kimber jarred against my back.

I threw myself into the driver’s seat and headed the car back onto the street. “Where are you staying?”

Kaylee looked up. “Staying?”

“Your hotel.”

“I live here.”

“I thought you flew in this morning like me.”

Her voice had a slur, as though she wasn’t allocating much in the way of mental resources to it. “I did. But this is where I live. I flew out to Cove just for a couple of weeks.”

Even better. “What’s your address then?”

“Pellier and Whitherwood.”

I typed the names into the GPS.

“What’s it all about?” Kaylee asked.

“Two guys showed up at my motel. I have no idea how they found out I’m here. So I need somewhere else to crash.”

“That’s not what I meant. What’s life all about? You’re here for the Second Coming, is that right?”

“Life is about not dying till you have to. And the Second Coming isn’t coming, not if I can help it.”

“I really did die.”

“And I brought you back. We’re spinning our wheels here.”

“That’s not what I mean. I have a career. Had a career. I thought this story was the last big score, you know? I’m thirty-seven. There’s Simone Pert coming up to replace me. And—Jesus Christ—the network is bringing in a petite redhead to do the weather because that’s what some consultant told them they need. They want her to file her reports in a bikini.”

“What channel is that again?”

Kaylee glared at me, then resumed staring at traffic. “My career is coming to an end. I just wanted one more great story. This thing looked national. A dozen murders in different cities. All young men born within days of each other. But nobody is going to believe I got killed and resurrected, or that I’m driving around with the next messiah. But I was dead, and it felt . . . so wonderful.” She shrugged, her eyes bleak. “So I could be here another, oh, forty years. Forty years before I die again. Shit.”

“There are thousands of things that may kill you sooner.”

She shut up. We drove in silence broken by the occasional vocal direction from the GPS. We came to a highrise of steel and gold-tinted glass. The sign, perched in an oval lawn surrounded by asphalt, said, “Falcone Towers. Highrise living at its finest!”

Kaylee waved at the underground parking, and fished around in her purse for a card. I ran it through the slot and the gate opened before us.

Kaylee’s apartment was on the sixth floor. Along one wall were pictures and pages in frames. Awards. Kaylee was a Big Deal in the local television biz. A picture of her with the Fire Chief, if the man’s uniform was anything to go by. Another of a guy in a suit. Summerton’s mayor, maybe.

The first thing Kaylee did was turn on the television. It seemed reflexive. She left it going while she wandered into the kitchen and plugged a black kettle in. Channel forty-eight; the blue globe logo in the lower left corner was a giveaway.

I had time to think now. I’d initially figured bad luck was the reason I’d almost been sitting with Nathan over breakfast when the bomb went off. Kaylee had saved our lives just by being a distraction. Five more minutes . . .

But no; someone knew. So who talked? Let’s go down the list. Mom; I’d told her which motel I’d booked; she thought I was on an impromptu vacation to visit my ol’ buddy and half-brother Emile; hadn’t seen him since he and his mom left Cove City. I’d also talked to Adam Landry, whom I knew from Facebook. I hadn’t told him or Emile where I was staying.

Then there was Hilda Langella: police lieutenant and homicide investigator for Cove PD. I’d known Hilda two weeks—ever since Loren had turned up dead. She’d been there when I raised Jamie. It’s one thing to convince yourself you’re mistaken about how bad someone’s injuries might be. But when a bullet has taken out someone’s eye, that’s something else—especially when the bullet pops back out, rolls along the asphalt, and butts up against your shoe. And the eye kind of folds out like a flower and rebuilds itself while you watch. And then the dead person sits up and starts moaning about the tunnel of light.

I’d sat her in a coffee shop, told Jamie to shut up, and told her what was what. I’d even done my water-into-coffee trick.

I flipped open my cell phone and scrolled down the contacts list for “Langella”, and hit the green “Call” button. She answered on the second ring.

“Langella here.”

“Hilda, it’s Seth.”

“I know. Call display is a wonderful invention.”

“How the hell did the bad guys know I was going to be here?”

“I have no idea. How?”

“Someone knew where I’d be staying.”

“I see. Of course, I can understand why you would instantly suspect that a police detective used to keeping her mouth shut would have blabbed to hired killers she doesn’t know that you might be flying across the country to deliver a warning and possibly track down the killers themselves. I still have four unsolved murders in my files.”

I shut my eyes; Hilda could be a pain in the ass, especially when she was right. “Okay, I get your point. By the way, thanks for hooking me up with Sharkey. I’m—”

“Back up. How could I possibly know someone like Sharkey?”

“Never—? He’s the gun-runner you—”

“There is no way you got his number from me, since I don’t move in those circles.”

“Oh. Right. Wink-wink. Well anyway, I’m fitted up with a couple of pistols, some used hand grenades—”

“You bought used hand grenades? How exactly does a ‘used’ grenade differ from a pile of rubble?”

“Sharkey says that just means they didn’t come through official channels. Like, they weren’t sold off by some supply officer eager to pay up his gambling debt by unloading some of his stock.”

“That’s an official channel, is it?”

“Yeah. An unofficial channel might be, say, some terrorist group in Clusterfuckistan moving gear onto the black market because they’ve stripped the fuses or replaced the powder with sand because they needed it in a bigger, nastier bomb.”

“Ah. And you bought these?”

“Odds are they’re perfectly good. I got them at a discount. Seventy bucks each.”

“Of course this conversation is purely hypothetical. You didn’t really buy illicit weapons in Summerton. Enjoy your vacation. Toodly-do.” The phone clicked. Damn. So if Hilda hadn’t talked, who did that leave? No one. Or I was missing something.

A hissing sound came from down the corridor. Kaylee was having a shower. That was a good idea.

She gave me an empty look when she emerged from the bathroom. “I’m making tea.”

“Thanks. Just a cup of water for me. Got a spare towel?”

She opened a linen closet next to the bathroom door. “Here.” It was big and blue and had a picture of the Muppets on it. Great.

I showered, dried my nuts on Kermit and my back on Miss Piggy, and stepped out to fresh clothes.

I found a stacked washer and dryer across the hall from the bathroom.

“Mind if I use your washing machine?” I called.

A mutter came back that I took to mean, “Sure.” I shoved my bloody jeans, shirt, and jacket into the washer and poured in some detergent. Then I fussed with the dial until the machine groaned to life.

Kaylee had dressed: jeans and a T-shirt, Steven Tyler’s face staring out from under the Aerosmith logo. She was sitting on the couch looking glum and staring at the television. An attractive woman with a mountain of hair smiled from the screen. Kaylee caught my look. “Simone Pert. The consultant said she would make a better anchor than me.”

I flipped my phone open again. Adam had given me several names and numbers; I picked the next one on the list: Quentin Haze. His phone rang and rang, then went to voice-mail.

“Quentin, this is your brother, Seth. Call me, please; it’s important.” I recited my number, then I clicked off and scrolled to Emile’s number. I tried it and got a shaky voice.

“Hello?”

“Hi. Who is this?”

“You phoned me, dude. You ought to know.”

“Emile? This is Seth.”

“I’m not Emile. And Seth? Nathan called us. He was in a freak-out. We’re getting out of Dodge.”

“Good. Listen. I need to know who you know. Others in the brotherhood.”

“I’m busy. We have a truck to load.” The phone clicked. Asshole.

“I need to see Emile,” I told Kaylee. “Why don’t you go to bed or something? Rest. It’s been a long day already.” We were barely past noon.

Kaylee looked up at me, and suddenly her eyes were sharp. “I’m coming with you. This is still my story.”

“You don’t need to do that. I’ll come back and tell you what I’ve learned. You can keep my clothes hostage.”

“No way. I’m seeing this through. Maybe I can’t put you and your brothers on television, but there’s still a story here. Someone is still murdering you.”

 
 

Armageddon

Chapter 3

 

We pulled into a parking spot outside a two-story beige tract house in a south-side subdivision called Maple Acres. The GPS happily informed us we had arrived at our destination. We shared the street with a five-ton truck with BARC in big green letters across its side. Cardboard boxes for liquor brands ranging from Captain Morgan to Jack Daniels were scattered across the lawn.

Kaylee and I marched up the sidewalk. The door was propped open with a black plant pot holding a bent stick which might once have been a living plant.

“Hello?” I called.

A figure poked his head from a doorway to the right. “Hey. Seth?”

“That’s me.”

“Who is she?”

Kaylee stepped forward, hand outstretched. “I’m Kaylee Jerrel, with Channel Forty-eight news.”

“I’m Chase. I’m busy.” His head jerked back.

We followed him. “Was it you I spoke to on the phone?” I asked.

“That was me.”

“You’ve seen Nathan?”

Chase nodded. His voice shook. “He told us about Tim’s Diner. Boom.”

“Where are you going?”

Chase glanced at Kaylee. “You trust her?”

“I guess.”

Kaylee gave me a look.

Chase shrugged. “Emile has another house, ten or fifteen minutes away. We’d figured on moving there anyway next month. We’ve got a lot of stuff already packed. We just stepped up the plan.”

I blinked. “Emile owns two houses?”

“Sure. He runs his own company. Buys stocks, buys houses.” Envy licked at Chase’s words. “He’s rolling in it. This house has gone up two hundred grand since he bought it. He’s selling it off.” Chase eyed me cautiously. “Hey, do you think you can help us load the truck?”

“Us?”

“Nathan called work and said he’s throwing up, so his boss told him to stay home in bed. He’s upstairs packing.”

Hours later I wasn’t entirely sure how, after narrowly escaping getting blown up at Tim’s Diner and ambushed at a cheap motel, I’d got roped into helping load a truck with furniture. Kaylee wandered past me carrying a lamp.

I peered dubiously into the back of the truck as Chase and I lifted a green couch into it. The truck stank of old dog.

Chase looked chagrined. “It was all I could snag on short notice. I work for the Bureau of Animal Rescue and Care.”

“Like the SPCA?”

“Yeah.”

We loaded two couches, a fifty-two inch television (“Just essentials,” Chase said), a coffee table, and three mattresses.

Nathan apparently had bolted for Emile and Chase’s house as soon as he was clear of Tim’s Diner. “The place made a hell of a noise when it went up, didn’t it?” he said while carrying a Blu-ray player past us. He scowled. Maybe he figured I was to blame for him having to pack up his life in a hurry. Some people are like that: you tell them, “Run, someone’s trying to kill you”, and all they do is whine about the inconvenience. Like being dead wouldn’t be inconvenient.

Chase watched Nathan mope his way past us. “Emile figures this will all blow over in a couple of weeks.” That sounded intended to appease Nathan.

“Based on what?” I asked.

“He has connections. He drives an Audi.”

I considered pointing out that the skill set required to buy and drive an expensive car didn’t actually match those needed to keep yourself from being blown up and shot by thugs. Come to think of it, I didn’t really have those skills either.

We had the truck loaded by five. Chase mentioned pizza.

“When does Emile get home?” I asked.

“Usually six-thirty. He couldn’t take time from his busy schedule to help.”

That sounded like Emile.

Chase drove the truck with Nathan beside him. Kaylee and I followed in my Camry. Kaylee glared at me. “Why are we doing this? I thought we were going to find out where more of your brothers live.”

“We are. Emile is well connected. Right now this is doing us good. Don’t you find you enjoy doing something physical after a stressful situation? It’s like doing dishes after a crisis. It lets your brain turn things over and get mellow while your hands have something to keep them busy.”

“If I wanted to do dishes I wouldn’t have bought a dishwasher.”

The van slowed ahead of us and pulled over. I eased in behind it.

The new house was huge. A mansion, practically. Two floors. Roman pillars held up two porches. It had a classical look, as though it had been built to look old and stately. The wood siding was too clean and unblemished to be more than a couple of years old.

Chase climbed out of the truck. “There’s a garage around the side. It’ll be easier taking things through there than through the front. We’ll have to open it from inside.”

Kaylee’s Blackberry buzzed as she climbed from the car. She peered at it and yelped.

I turned to her. Her face was white. She held it out. “Text message.”

I peered at the screen.

Quentin was killed ten seconds ago.

MTF

“Shit,” I said. “Who is MTF?”

“My anonymous source.”

“How do we know it isn’t a setup?”

“We don’t.”

Chase peered over my shoulder. “Oh my God. What are you going to do?”

“I need to get to Quentin. I can bring him back.”

Chase gasped. “You can do that?”

“Can’t you?”

“Uh, no.”

Nathan laughed. It wasn’t a pleasant sound. “His mom figured he’d be better off if he didn’t know two fucks about what we are.”

“Well, Seth brought me back.” Kaylee glowered at me. “He can do the same for this man Quentin.”

I turned to Chase and Nathan. “I have weapons, but I could use some help.”

They looked at each other.

“Well, you see,” Chase said and trailed off.

“Yeah, right,” Nathan added.

“It’d help if I had someone to raise me, on the chance I get hit in the back of the head or something. You know, shot?”

They looked at each other. Chase scratched his nose. “It’s kind of sudden.”

Nathan snorted. “You expect us to charge the guns with you? I almost got blown up. You can keep the hero complex to yourself.”

I flipped the pair of them a middle finger and headed for my car. Kaylee joined me. She wasn’t afraid to “charge the guns”, apparently.

On the other hand, I thought as I climbed in, maybe she just wanted another trip up.

 

I drove past Quentin’s house to get a look at the place. It was a little red cottage with a high peaked roof. There was a black car across the street. No other vehicles. I counted houses past it; there were three. So I took the corner at the intersection and drove into the alley.

I took the two Kimbers out and held one to Kaylee. She shook her head. “I’m not taking that.”

“Come on. The bad guys have probably left, but better to have protection.”

Kaylee eyed me sadly. “I can’t. If I shoot someone, will that mean I won’t go back where I was? I’ll go to . . .?”

She didn’t finish.

“Hell?” I said. “There’s no such place. But fine.” I pocketed one of the Kimbers and shoved my door open. “Stay put.”

“No way. I want to see what they’ve done.”

I popped the trunk and gathered up two of the grenades, pondered the Sten, figured it wasn’t necessary. But this time I loaded my pistols.

Kaylee walked beside me as I strode along the alley, counting houses until we reached Quentin’s back yard. A wire fence enclosed it. A decrepit white wooden gate hung on hinges blackened with rust. I stopped and checked the Kimber, then crept along the fence-line to the gate. It was going to creak; that was obvious. The wire was low. I lifted one leg over, then the other, careful not to joggle the wire, just in case. Kaylee did the same. From here I could see a small window to the left and a door in the middle, up four steps. On the other side was a smaller window, translucent. A bathroom, probably. No sign of movement within.

I crept along the path to the steps and peered through the window. White cupboards. The edge of what might be a fridge.

Then my eyes focused on the window itself and picked out the detail I’d missed: there wasn’t actually any glass in it. I leaned forward and noticed fragments scattered across a counter, and toothy shards jutting up from the sill.

Kaylee was farther down the walkway behind me. I glanced at her and motioned for her to stop and drop low. The screen door was shut. The inner door was slightly ajar. The edge where it latched was torn up. Someone had put a boot to it.

Thunder cracked around me. I saw a figure within, just for a moment, then a crash of thunder again. The glass in the screen door shattered. My ears rang. I poked my pistol around the edge of the door and squeezed the trigger. Nothing happened. I swore and worked the pistol’s slide, and tried again. The pistol barked, louder than movies imply. I tried another couple into the house.

“Kaylee.” I glanced back at her. “Get—”

She wasn’t there. Instead she was farther back, on the ground, her belly oozing red. She gasped. Froth formed on her lips.

Kaylee smiled, coughed. “Is it fatal?”

“Don’t worry, I can take care of it.”

“No. Let me go.”

“Don’t talk crap. You don’t have to die.”

“I want to.” She spat pink across her shirt. “I want to go back there. Just let me go.”

“Dammit, you’ve got info I need.”

“My computer’s password is Murrow. Capital M. Replace the ‘o’ with a zero and use two greater-than signs for the ‘r’s.”

“Let’s finish this later. Right now I’m busy.” I squeezed another shot into the hallway, then shoved the door open and bolted through. There was a little alcove that apparently served as the porch. It didn’t give much for cover.

A figure to my left. A shot cracked into the wall. Quieter than mine. The man wore a dark jacket with a white collar. I saw a pistol in his hands, a long muzzle on it. I recognized that: a silencer. I’d seen all the right movies.

I grabbed one of my grenades and threw it across to the kitchen. Then I realized I’d forgotten to pull the pin. It was still psychologically effective; I heard a shriek. The man bolted from the kitchen to a little corridor on the right. I fired blindly and got a satisfying “Ergh!” for my efforts.

A patch of wall next to me exploded. I heard laughter and saw a tall familiar man in a black business suit. He carried a short rifle or shotgun. I squeezed a shot in his direction and he got out of the hallway.

“Antoine?” the big man called. “You okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” came a muffled, labored voice. “Finish the bastard.”

“Grenade!” I yelled, reaching for another. This time I popped the pin. The little egg started to hiss as I tossed it into the corridor. It bounced along the carpet. I dove for the kitchen.

And landed on the remains of Quentin. At least, I assumed it was Quentin. He’d had a shotgun-blast facelift.

Then Antoine yelled, “Max, the bomb’s a dud; take him out.”

Well, that was convenient. Max called out, “Thank you, old chum.” He cracked a shot in my direction and blew a hole in plaster.

Then a clap of thunder, louder and meaner than his. It flung a wind through the corridor, churning up dust. A body in a suit came thumping down into the hallway, the head and one arm at twisted angles.

I lay still, my pistol pointing at the doorway. A figure loomed in smoke and dust. I fired and it was gone.

I scrambled up. My ears rang for the second time today. Max was a broken mess oozing red from a hundred different rips, tears, and cuts. I recognized him then; the little round glasses hanging on his ears were the giveaway. This was the man racing out of Tim’s Diner as I went in to meet Nathan.

Movement to my right. The kitchen had a second window facing the fence along the side of the house. A man in a bomber jacket shuffled past.

I scrambled through the house to the front door, in time to see the wounded man limping madly across the street. I lifted my pistol and squeezed the trigger.

Factoid: hitting something at a distance with a pistol is actually very hard to do. Forget what you see in movies and television.

My first shot hit nothing obvious. He sped up and flung the driver-side door open. At the same time he put a cell phone to his ear and shrieked, “Get your asses over here!” My second shot pierced his back window. He cranked the car into gear and squealed tires. One more shot. That thumped into pavement, and he was away.

I found Kaylee still conscious. The pool around her had grown.

“I’m going to need your help,” I said.

“No. Just let me go. No one to go home to. I’m fine going like this. It’s beautiful on the other side.”

“You can die some other time. I still need those names.”

“Look at my computer. Folder on the desktop. Investigation, it’s called.”

“Can I have your Blackberry?” I tugged it from her waist. Fortunately it hadn’t taken any blood.

“Okay, it’s yours. If you need to access messages, the passcode is 2831.”

“Thanks. The bad guy is calling in reinforcements. We need to get out of here.”

“Then go.”

“You’ve been hit in the belly. You could take hours to die.” I crouched beside her and slipped my arms under her.

“Hey, what are you doing? I don’t want you to fix me.”

“I’m not going to. But I don’t want the bad guys to find you here still alive. They might . . .”

“What, shoot me?”

“No. These guys are serious. Maybe they’ll torture you to find out where I am.”

Kaylee howled as I scooped her up. The wound in her belly milked blood. She weighed more this time, but fortunately the car was closer.

I got her to the back seat and slid her in. She lay there gasping for each breath. I raced back to Quentin’s kitchen. He was heavier than she was, but I didn’t feel compelled to be gentle. I tossed him over my shoulder firefighter style and hauled him to the car. He got the front seat. I buckled his corpse in.

“I’ll probably need cash too,” I said to Kaylee as I backed the car out of the alley. “I’m paying for this trip on my savings and vacation money. Black-market weaponry is more expensive than I thought.”

“Fine. Take my banking cards. Three of ‘em. Same pin. 7323. Checking accounts.” She coughed. “Anything else? A cruise to the Bahamas?”

“How about the keys to your condo?”

“Sure. I won’t be back.” She laughed. Pink froth ran down her chin. “Oh God, this hurts. How long have I got?”

“I’m not sure. All the people I’ve seen die went really quick. Look, maybe you don’t really want to go.”

“I do, dammit.”

We reached the street and I cranked the car around. I pointed the nose north. Then I glanced at Quentin and pushed the Resurrection Button.

Now I had time to think. The speedometer read higher than the limit. I eased off. No sense getting pulled over by a cop. If that happened, the constable might ask why I was carrying a corpse around. Depending on when I got pulled over, the corpse might be either Quentin or Kaylee.

Quentin’s face had morphed when I wasn’t looking. Buckshot rolled down his chest and bounced off the armrest in the passenger door. The pellets that formerly inhabited his brains. My other passenger was making sucking noises in the back. A good time was being had by no one.