It’s a new book! Here we go!
Bryan showed his ID at the barricade. The policeman there ushered him in like a tardy schoolboy and asked something he couldn’t hear through his muffled eardrums and the honking of the redirected traffic and the chatter of the crowd he was leaving behind at the caution tape.
Again he wondered why were there always crowds. Was everyone suicidal? Don’t they know these things go wrong?
The cop said something else and Bryan nodded to get rid of him. Cops were like gnats once they knew who you were.
The cop clung to him anyway, leading him to Andrade, as if he wouldn’t know where she would be. She was there at the front of the commotion, nearest the doors to the hotel, where the cops didn’t dare venture. Mr. Cop pointed to her and then stood nearby the two of them – though sufficiently away from the hotel – as if awaiting a thank you or instructions. As if he could be of use.
“You’re up,” Andrade said. “First one here.”
“What?” Bryan shouted.
“I said you’re the first one here,” she said, louder.
Bryan nodded. “You scope it out?”
“I did. Three of them in there.”
“Three. What’s with you?”
He pointed to an ear. “Was at a club. Loud band. Terrible band.”
“This is why I don’t go to clubs.”
“This girl likes this band. It’s probably a good thing I got called in.”
“Such a workaholic.”
Andrade sighed in exasperation. “Never mind. Just get in there. 44th floor. THREE of them.” She held up three fingers to emphasize.
Bryan nodded and opened his mouth to respond, but a razor thin and razor straight suit of a man stepped out past the line of cops and came up to him.
“Are you the, er…” The suit fidgeted with his hands. “Are you responsible for taking care of these things?”
“That’s me,” Bryan said.
“Ah, good. I have a request. I’m the manager of this hotel and I would like to ask that you take care of this problem with as little mess as possible.”
Bryan wasn’t sure he had heard correctly. “Mess?”
“We’re a well-respected hotel. We can’t have just anybody tearing up the walls and floors.” He fluttered a hand in the air to illustrate.
Bryan stared at him for a moment, dumbfounded, then turned to Andrade. “Andrade, how many presumed dead?”
“Current estimate is thirty. But of course it will be higher once everyone is accounted for.”
Bryan looked back to the manager.
They finally believe us, and now they want to dictate how we work.
“Thirty people,” he said aloud. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about your floors and walls.”
The manager’s eyes went wide, but before he could respond Bryan had stormed away and through the glass doors of the hotel. The police lights flashed against the walls, red and blue flickering over every surface. But as the door closed he was finally wrapped in silence, and he could hear the ringing in his ears. He could remember the awful band and Lily asking him why was he laughing. Him saying because the lyrics were shit and does she really listen to these guys. And then she got angry and told him well I don’t see you playing any instruments. Yeah but he still knew what music was.
A fight on a first date. Man, he was smooth.
Hussein’s voice spoke up in his mind. Don’t let the job take over you.
Oh shut up, Bryan snapped back at his memory. It wasn’t anything to do with the job. It was a ditz girl and they just hadn’t gotten along.
But he had been kind of a jerk.
He watched the numbers climb to 44 above the elevator doors, each number illuminating in turn. He reached into his bag and closed his fingers over the deck of cards. As he took them out he felt his muscles stiffen of their own accord – his jaw clenched, his stomach tightened, his lungs took in a sharp breath. His body knew better than his mind what was coming. His whole body was Pavlov’s dog, honed to the appearance of a few playing cards. He opened the package and slid out the top card and, as he still had a couple more floors to go past, he glanced at it. He frowned as he saw it was a joker. He usually took those out, but this one had slipped past him, and it had been too late by the time he had to use it last night. He could feel a faint pulse beneath his fingers, running the surface of the card as if blood ran through the ink. He could skip it. Could use a different card.
It didn’t matter. Why the superstition anyway? It didn’t change anything.
The thought of his aborted date came back to him like a slap to the face.
The elevator doors slid open as he slipped three more cards – empty cards, ready for capture – from the deck into his hand. His eyes defied his rational mind and snuck a peek at them: hearts, clubs, diamonds. Then he looked up.
Before him were five bodies, thin, desiccated, as if they had been lying in a desert sun for days instead of a hotel hallway for an hour. They hadn’t even had time to start smelling.
He stepped gingerly over them, making sure not step on any limbs lest they break open and spill foul dust into the air. The lights in the hall were flickering almost as bad as the police lights outside, but the view was still clear enough – bodies down the corridor, all green and yellow, huddled with mouths yawned open. They could have been made of paper.
Time to quit stalling. This should have been done in the elevator.
It was a very common mistake in his profession to wait.
He took the joker in both hands and tore it in half. The demon inside it leapt to his body.
His heart set afire. His veins burned with acid. His head split apart. A million needles drove in under his skin. His stomach tried hard to dispel its contents, but he was able to keep it down. You had to concentrate on that part most of all. He cried out and fell to one knee. Then it entered his mind.
The flickering lights flickered darker. A slick dim grime settled over everything, both outside and inside his body. It was as if the universe and everything in it, including him, was fetid and rotten and turning a burnt black.
He forced his head up. Dimly, through the grime, there were two red beings, past the walls, down another corridor or in rooms. He looked up. The third one was above, maybe two floors. He’d take that one last.
It was a struggle to his feet, and a struggle to walk down the hall. The demon was making him feel like a stranger in his own body. Every step was torture, every movement a jolt to his nerves.
But I’m alive, he began his mantra. But I’m alive. He took steps between the corpses. Some of the rooms he passed had had their doors blown or ripped off, and in these he could see more desiccated bodies – men, women, a child here and there. He growled low and continued down the hall, spurred on. There was a long tear in the wallpaper on his right, and he grinned a grin that wasn’t really his. There’s your walls, Mr. Manager.
The first demon was in the hall, pulsing red and flowing viscous light. It hung amorphous in the air. They always reminded Bryan of the northern lights, though he didn’t like the link that created in his mind. Northern lights were a beautiful memory he had once had, now tainted by these things. It wasn’t right that they looked so beautiful, for what they were capable of, and what they weren’t capable of.
It hadn’t noticed him yet; his lifeforce was masked by the other one inside him. He reached out a hand towards it, focusing on the power of the demon inside, thrusting it outwards. The acid pumped through his veins, burning deeper, but he only grit his teeth against it. The light faded entirely from the hallway and there was only the blackness and the northern lights flowing. He envisioned a circle of flames around those lights, and it was there, thrust into existence. The demon screeched like fingernails on a chalkboard and the light wavered and dipped but couldn’t escape the circle.
Bryan held up one of the playing cards, and willed the demon in. The light was pulled into the card, screaming all the way, until it only pulsed faintly red over the laminated surface. The fire whisked once around the card and Bryan’s fingers, and was gone.
One demon down. And here comes the second.