Sprawlin' on the Bayou

The Heights of Terror: Session 2
Unintended Consequences

Hudson spun the cylinder of his revolver as he stepped out of his car. Six shells gleamed in the noonday sun. He slid the pistol back into his shoulder holster. West Texas had more than its fair share of crazies and Hudson had never regretted arriving at a secluded compound armed. He flexed his ankle to feel the reassuring pressure of his knife in his boot and looked longingly at the shotgun resting on the passenger seat. Heavily armed.

As he turned toward the gate, Hudson had to admit that the was one of the nicer ones he had ever seen. The gate was wrought iron, custom-made to be both appealing and capable of stopping an armored car if Hudson was any judge. A ten-foot high brick fence topped with iron security spikes surrounded the compound as well, rather than the typical scrap metal and plywood. The buildings that he could see through the gaps in the gate were scattered over a close-cropped lawn, with small flowerbeds beneath most of the windows and fresh paint on the walls.

The only thing missing was people. All the paths between the buildings were empty, though Hudson thought he saw the curtains twitch on a building just to the right of the gate. Other than that, the compound looked as abandoned as Chernobyl’s mess hall. Hudson would not have been surprised to see a tumbleweed blow across the scene.

Hudson pondered what to do next. The gate was chained shut and there was no callbox beside the driveway. He supposed he could pull out Max and try and shoot the chain. However, that action was unlikely to get him back into the Ranger’s good graces. Or endear him to the residents for that matter. Or actually work. The movies were always more optimistic about the success rate of that particular trick than they had any right to be.

Sweat started to trickle down the back of his neck as the sun beat down. Hudson missed his hat as He glanced back his car. His trip to the evidence lock-up had been fruitful. Frank had been happy to let him rummage around the evidence lock-up and Hudson had managed to lift a locket and a goathead pendant while Frank was blinded by the light of Hudson’s badge. The locket held pictures of the Yates children. A boy and girl on one side, both about five years old, were so similar in appearance that Hudson assumed they must be twins. The other side held a picture of a red-faced toddler, all chubby cheeks and a cherubic smile. A small tag on the chain had been labeled ‘Maggie.’

The pendant had been something altogether different. Instead of a cheap, sentimental necklace, the pendant resembled a goat’s head with curling horns about the size of a poker chip with warped, asymmetrical lines. At first glance, it just appeared crudely made or perhaps melted. Closer inspection revealed that the unbalanced appearance was more deliberate than amateurish. The twisted lines gave the pendant an unsettling, nauseating appearance. Hudson would have left it lying in the evidence locker, probably for decades more, if he hadn’t read the inscription on the back: To Jerome Yates – I Will Fear No Evil.

No matter how disturbing or emotional, both pieces obviously meant something personal to the deceased and, as Hudson understood it, that was what was needed for whatever Charlie and David had planned. He pocketed both on his way out and knew that, given the nature of the case, no one was likely to notice they were missing unless there was an audit. And let’s face it, Hudson thought, HPD wasn’t that well organized.

With that thought, Hudson turned to walk back to his car. The trip to the compound had been something Charlie had suggested anyway. Just a hunch that wasn’t panning out. Hudson was an investigator. A lot of dead-ends in that job. Nothing lost but a little daylight and he still had the two items from evidence. Time to hit the road.

As he pulled his keys from his pocket, a voice called from within the compound, “Usually you folks are a bit more insistent upon entry, lawman.”

Hudson whipped back around, his hand darting underneath his jacket to rest on the butt of his gun. Where moments before there had been a deserted lot, an old and weathered man stood. Not feeble or weak, but worn like the stones of Ireland, battered and shaped by time but strong and eternal. Shaggy hair and a gray beard hid most of his face, apart from flint eyes that stared out from behind heavy glasses. Neatly dressed in tan slacks and a button-down shirt, he watched Hudson from just over an arm’s reach inside the gate.

“You going to stand there with your hand on your piece, or you going to tell me why you’re here?” he said.

Hudson snatched his hand out from under his jacket, rubbing it along his pants. Damn, he thought, getting twitchy in my old age. The man’s voice was almost as surprising as his appearance. It wasn’t a Texan’s accent, the lazy twang of the high plains. His voice was the drawl of the Deep South, of Alabama and Mississippi, a voice that evoked memories of sweet tea and plantations. “Excuse me Mr….?”

“Just call me Deacon, Ranger. I’ll ask again, why you here? You don’t look like someone who has seen the light of the Shepherd.”

“No sir but you might say I came here looking for enlightenment,” Hudson eye’s swept the compound behind the Deacon again. “Where is everyone by the way?”

“They’re hiding. Your federal brothers have a bad habit of razing sanctuaries like ours. You can seek your enlightenment through me.”

Hudson nodded ruefully, “Fair enough Deacon. Do you remember the Yates murders of a few years ago? Married couple, murder-suicide with a couple of kids? I understand the husband, Jerome Yates, was a member of your…sect.”

A ghost of a grin flitted across the Deacon’s face at Hudson’s verbal stumble, “Aye, Brother Jerome was strong with the Shepherd. A good man slandered by secular authorities. And now here you stand, Mr. Ranger, asking questions again after all these years. What business have you with the ghost of our poor fallen brother?”

Hudson shivered at the Deacon’s choice of words, “There have been…disturbances at the Yates’ old residence. I’ve been asked to investigate by some interested parties. I’d hoped you might be able to give me some information about Mr. Yates.”

The older man chuckled openly now, “ ‘Interested parties,’ huh? I’ll take that to mean this isn’t an official visit then, lawman.” The Deacon rubbed his hand along his jaw line as he took in Hudson’s shallow nod. “Perhaps I can be of some assistance after all.” The Deacon shook his head, “The Yates’ property is filled with spirits most foul, Ranger. As it ever is when mortals meddle with powers they cannot hope to control.” The Deacon’s face twisted into almost a snarl, “Maggie,” he spat, “That witch tried to see the world through God’s eyes and took our brother and his children with her to hell. And her spirit haunts our brother’s home still, preventing him from seeking his blessed rest with the Shepherd. A travesty that, despite our best efforts, we have not been able to rectify…” The Deacon’s voice trailed off at the end and the flint of his eyes struck the steel of his soul. “What exactly is your intention, Ranger?”

Hudson thought it best to answer honestly under that piercing gaze, “It’s simple, Deacon. I’ve been hired to clear the property of all supernatural influence. Investigate and eliminate.”

The fire in the Deacon’s gaze lowered an alarm or two, “Perhaps you and your friends can do what we could not. Perhaps you can put our brother’s spirit to rest.”

The Deacon reached a hand into his pocket and drew forth a medallion on a long chain. At first glance, Hudson felt déjà vu again. The pendant was similar to the one he had taken from the evidence lock-up, only this one was larger and backed by a solid silver circle with a rim edged in stars and angular geometric figures. The figures stared to swim in Hudson’s vision and the nausea he had felt looking on Jerome’s medallion returned ten-fold. Only when the Deacon closed his fist around the pendant to hand it through the gate did the nausea subside. Hudson avoided looking at the pendant as he stuffed it into his jacket but imagined he could still feel it pulsing out of sight.

As he looked back up, the Deacon was turning away, but called over his shoulder, “The Shepherd can make use of even the unholy in the pursuit of greater justice, Ranger. Please give our gift to your friend, Mr. Harper.”

With that, the Deacon strode back toward the compound, “May the love of the Shepherd shelter you, Hudson Pearce.”

Hudson watched the man as he retreated toward the buildings full of frightened cult members before he realized something. “I never told you my name,” he shouted.

The Deacon merely waved back over his shoulder as he kept walking.
______________________________________________________________________________________________

Charlie and David stood should-to-shoulder in the middle of the Yates’s gravel driveway. There was something about the – alleged yet highly likely – presence of ghosts on a property that necessitated retaining the possessive. Almost two acres of brush and tangled undergrowth covered the lot. The bright light of the Texas afternoon was muted amongst the undergrowth, and the sleek lines of David’s Jaguar clashed with the riotous vegetation of the urban jungle. Traffic was hushed as well, leaving Charlie and David to feel as if they had left the city behind and been transported to another world.

“So, here we are,” David said.

“We are definitely here,” Charlie responded.

“Looks to be a house back there.”

“Maybe two.”

“Probably ghosts in it.”

“Yep.”

“You noticed the significant drop in temperature when we walked onto the property, I take it?” David asked.

“Probably just the shade,” Charlie replied.

“That is what I thought.”

Charlie glanced at his friend. While not the magical generalist that Charlie was, David’s mystical senses were highly developed and his knowledge of the supernatural rivaled anyone Charlie had ever known, except his grandfather. “How you feelin’ there David?”

“A bit apprehensive. You?”

“Working on anxious. Also thinking Hudson might have gotten off easy breaking into HPD and talkin’ to crazy cultists.”

“You may be onto something,” David replied, without a hint of humor in his voice. He took a deep breath before continuing. “Alright, we have ‘boots on the ground’. Now what, Charlie?”

“Hey, this was your idea, but I guess we oughta search the property.”

“Think we should split up?”

“Hell no.”

David and Charlie combed the property. Aside from the house and trash that seemed to have been blown onto the land, there was little more than brush and undergrowth. No shopping carts, no dumped trash, not even much evidence of animal habitation. Charlie and David completed their circuit quickly, finding nothing overtly threatening. They both felt the rising sense of foreboding though, a feeling of disquiet that permeated the air as they stood in front of the house.

“Well, that was spectacularly useless,” Charlie said as they stood looking at the house. Apart from the peeling paint and sagging roof, it appeared to be a fairly standard Houston home. Two stories, a broad porch in the front, and boarded windows.

“Think we should knock? I would hate to fail to uphold my nation’s reputation for politeness.”

“I’m not knocking until I know what we’re getting into,” Charlie sighed as he seemed to come to some sort of conclusion. “Watch my back, I’m going to try something.”

Charlie closed his eyes as he knelt on the ground. Behind him he heard the soft scrape of leather and the rustle of boots as David pulled his gun. Truth be told, he really did not want to do this. He wanted to be home, sipping whiskey he really couldn’t afford and listening to Led Zepplin records. He wanted to be stuck in Alice’s Tall Texan past midnight, forced to hit on homely girls for a ride home. Almost anything, in fact, held more appeal than what he was about to do.

Charlie directed his thoughts to spot on his forehead directly above the bridge of his nose. As always, unlocking his Sight was hard to describe. Honestly, the closest analogy he’d ever managed to come up with was taking a shit. You just sort of loosened…things and stuff happened. Scatological metaphors aside, Charlie could feel the power blossoming behind his eyelids, phantom pressure straining to surge outwards, to burn away illusions and veils, to reveal the hidden secrets of the world.

Of course, many things are kept hidden because the knowledge of them can be scarring.
Equally true, however, is the aphorism ‘knowledge is power.’ Sometimes the only way to acquire knowledge was to burn away the deception and bask in the harsh clarity of reality, no matter the risk to you sanity.

As Charlie opened his eyes, his Sight poured over the landscape, seeming to spill forth from his eyes. His consciousness flowed outward with, bringing depth and sharpness to what he saw, enhancing the sent of decaying vegetation, turning the muffled sounds of the street into a symphony. A symphony played by six-graders on hand-me-down recorders, but a symphony nonetheless. He could even feel individual grains of sand on his palms as he gathered himself to raise his gaze to the house.

At first glance, noting about the house seemed amiss. With his Sight, the home appeared almost normal, surrounded only by a light blue aura that Charlie had always associated with a threshold. Slowly though, the house began to change. It seemed to writhe in his Sight. Pieces of siding rotted like a time-lapsed photo, decaying and falling to the ground. Holes appeared in the roof. The porch sagged and an extra layer of grime coated the exterior.

Then, as the house disintegrated in double-quick time, it began to recede into the distance. Almost like everything Charlie could see was being stretched along a dimension he wasn’t meant to observe, dragged by the rotting and putrid house. The house’s retreat accelerated as he watched, pulling further and further away, yet seeming to swell as well, until it was all Charlie could See.

Slowly, Charlie became aware of his heels dragging along the ground. Not only was the house filling his vision, but he was being drawn toward it as well, hauled toward the disintegrating porch. The rotting holes became jagged teeth, ready to tear him to shreds. The boarded windows cracked like a gunshot, pulling back to reveal depthless eyes. The porch collapsed entirely, becoming a gaping maw.

Sweat poured down Charlie’s forehead as he pitted his will against the strength of the vision, but his eyes remained locked on the house. Pressure mounted behind his eyes while his pulse pounded in his ears. His breath came in rapid gasps, but still the house drew him closer, his shoes gouging furrows in the yard. The house was almost gone now, replaced by a lightless void, endless and imminent.

David’s tackle hit him low and hard, tearing his Sight away from the house. The pair tumbled across the yard, trees and dirt streaking across Charlie’s vision. With his Sight open, the movement turned to streaks and swirls of color, form vanishing into information overload. Nausea overtook Charlie as they rolled to a stop, and he lost his breakfast on the lawn. Unfortunately, he was so disoriented that he wasn’t able to aim at David and share the moment. With his gaze finally torn from the house, he managed to squeeze shut his Third Eye, and simply lay on the ground for several moments, breathing heavily.

When Charlie gained control of his respiration and various senses, he realized David was still on top of him, holding him down by leaning his weight onto his back. It took Charlie a few attempts, but eventually he was able to speak, “You can let me up now David.”

“Are you sure? I have no wish to chase you back down.”

“I’m sure and…” Charlie spat, then ground his teeth, mouth twisting like he had bitten on something sour, “and… thanks.”

David failed to smirk or gloat in the least. “Of course.”

Charlie rubbed his head as he sat up. His nausea might have been as much mundane as a result of his Sight. “Where’d you learn to hit like that?”

“Rugby. I was quite the player in my youth. Did you learn anything worth the risk?”

“A little. I think we’re dealing with a demesne, a bubble in reality. When we enter that house, we’re going to be waist deep in the NeverNever.”

“With the ghosts,” David stated.

Charlie nodded, “With the ghosts.”

The two of them were still kneeling in the dirt when Hudson pulled into the driveway. As he pulled his rented Hyundai next to David’s Jaguar, two things occurred to him. First, automobile technology had regressed significantly in sixty years. Secondly, that life was entirely unfair. Hudson’s expression could only be described as bemused as he climbed out of the car and looked down at the dirt covering David and Charlie’s clothes.

“I miss something?”

“Bite me, Hudson,” Charlie said as he and David scrambled to their feet to dust themselves off. “I’ve been here risking my sanity to figure out how we’re going to clear out these ghosts. What have you been doing?”

“Committing felony larceny, risking my job, and interviewing cultists.”

Charlie glared at Hudson before he grunted, “Fine, we’ll call it a draw. What’d you find?”

Hudson pulled the two items he had lifted from the evidence lock-up from his pocket and handed them to David. “The evidence archive had these. They were labeled with the deceased’s names and seem like personal items. Think they’ll work?”

David smiled as he took the two items, “Those ought to do nicely, constable.”

Hudson frowned as he stuck his hand back under his jacket, “I picked up one other thing.” Hudson hesitated as he grasped the pendant in his pocket. The pendant seemed to…quiver as he held it, feeling somehow eager. He shook off the feeling as he drew it out, but avoided looking at it nonetheless. “The Deacon gave this to me. Told me to give it to you, Charlie. Said it might help us.”

Charlie eyed the pendant resting in Hudson’s hand. Sparks and motes of light still swam across his vision from his use of the Sight, but the pendant reflected nothing. It just lay there solidly in Hudson’s hand, seeming to drink in the light. Charlie could feel the call of the object, but it was like the urge to jump off a cliff when you walked near the edge. He tore his eyes away from it with only slightly less difficulty than he had from the house.

“What the hell is that?” he asked with a shudder.

Hudson’s seemed to understand as he tossed the pendant to Charlie, “A chance?”

Charlie caught the pendant and collapsed to the ground.
______________________________________________________________________________________________

Charlie awoke on his back along the bank of a massive river. The sky above him looked like airbrushed stainless steel, and in the distance, Charlie could hear the muted roar of a waterfall. A quick glance to either side of him revealed that mists hid the far side of the river to his right but immense peaks loomed only a few miles to his left.

So, Charlie thought, this isn’t Houston.

A voice, low and somehow wispy with a soft English accent, spoke up from behind his head, “You have a keen grasp of the obvious, Charlie Harper.”

Still lying on the ground, Charlie bent his head back until he was staring up at the…man, he supposed. Man-shaped, about six-feet tall, the figure was dressed in worn jeans and a white button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He had long hair but it surrounded a face that was…blurred, almost pixilated, like mobsters who turned state’s evidence. No hint of features could be seen, just a hazy fog.

Charlie sat as his neck began to ache from its awkward position, “You look like a coed on Girls Gone Wild who didn’t sign the waiver. What the hell’s wrong with your face?”

The voice rasped again, “I am the Shepherd, insolent mortal. To look upon my true form might drive mad. Think of my current appearance as a favor to your sanity.”

Charlie rubbed his neck as he turned to face the…thing, “I think of it as nauseating. Why the hell couldn’t you have spoken to Ramsay?”

“Mortal, I am a being of infinite power and wisdom. Very few from your realm ever warrant my attention. You should feel honored.”

It was difficult to tell, but Charlie thought the figure might actually be a little insulted that he wasn’t abasing himself and averting his eyes. Well, he’d be fucked if he was going to satisfy this asshole’s ego, not matter how epic. “Yeah, honored. Honored and lost. Where the hell am I?”

“Sitting by a river.”

Charlie might not be able to identify affront in a non-mortal’s tone, but apparently sarcasm was more universal. “I’ll handle the quips here, Fuzzy Face. Where have you brought me?”

In a very human gesture, the Shepherd sighed and rubbed his forehead with his hand. Somehow, the Shepherd’s hand stayed sharp and clear while his face remained blurry and indistinct. Nice trick, Charlie thought. He didn’t even get a suggestion of what might be behind that pixilated mask.

“Your mortal form remains where you left it. I merely transported your spirit here to bestow knowledge upon you. Surprisingly, I wish to assist you in your quest.”

Charlie snorted as he faced the Shepherd, “Quest?! I’m getting paid, O Wise One. It’s a job, nothing more.” Charlie looked around the riverbank. Besides the mountains in the far distance and the obscured far bank, there was nothing but flat ground and scattered patches of grass as far as he could see. “Your realm’s a little bland isn’t it? For a being of infinite power and wisdom, shouldn’t your digs be a little nicer? I mean, you couldn’t even finish the landscaping – ”

“My realm is perfectly fine! Your corporeal mind is simply translating psychic impressions into something famil- argggg! Listen, mortal, I have need of you to act in the physical realm. If you prefer to ever see said realm again, heed what I have to say.”

Charlie raised his hands in surrender, “Whatever you say, hoss. Lay some knowledge on me.”

The Shepherd shook his head a he grumbled under his breath. He flicked his hand toward Charlie, “See then, mortal.”

Charlie gasped as the river and plain faded, to be replaced by, of all things, a kitchen. Bodiless, Charlie’s consciousness hung suspended over a refrigerator in the corner of the kitchen that wouldn’t have been out of place in millions of suburban ranch houses in the Houston area alone. Faux granite counters, white appliances, only the ragged man crying in the corner was out of place.

The man was cradling his face in his hands. As Charlie watched, blood and tears splashed down from between his fingers, stark against the white linoleum and splattering on the pistol that they in his lap. The man’s bloodstained hands fell from his face to the pistol. A mask of blood obscured his features and Charlie could see more blood and…matter splattered on his flannel shirt. With a shaking hand the man brought the gun up to his temple. It hung there, suspended and trembling as the man squeezed his eyes closed, more tears cutting runnels through the blood.

An eternity later, the man dropped his shaking hand with the gun back into his lap. “Not enough. Not enough. Not enough. Not enough!” he stuttered. The man – Jerome Yates, Charlie felt assured – started swinging his wild-eyed head back and forth, searching the kitchen. His gaze finally came to rest on a tool bag, sitting on the counter underneath a blank spot on the wall where some cabinets were missing. Jerome dragged himself across the floor and reached his bloody hand up and pulled the tool bag down beside him. Wrenches, screwdrivers, and nails went flying across the floor, but Jerome wasn’t looking for them. He reached into the bag and grasped a hacksaw; its black handle wrapped in duct tape. “Shepherd hear my prayer,” Charlie heard him utter. “Let this begin my atonement.”

With that, Jerome swept the tools from his lap and pulled his shirt up to expose his abdomen. A horrible realization flooded through Charlie and he tried to close his eyes, to turn away, but here he had no body here, no control, no will. He was wholly at the mercy of the Shepherd’s vision. Jerome screamed as he drew the saw across his stomach, the sound echoing and reverberating in the small kitchen. Dark blood welled up to mix with the gore that already covered his body. Jerome continued to draw the saw back and forth across his stomach, causing blood and worse to spill out from the wound, soaking into his clothes and covering the kitchen’s cheap linoleum. Long after Charlie would have thought possible, probably about the time he hit his spine, Jerome finally lost the strength to continue and the hacksaw clattered to the floor. Jerome just slumped there, moaning while his life drained away.

The process took longer that Charlie would have thought. Seemingly gallons of blood poured out of Jerome as he continued to moan. Finally, Jerome shuttered, a last breath came out of him in a wracking cough, and he breathed a final sentence, “Maggie, forgive me.”

Charlie felt the power gathering as Jerome breathed his last. The room seemed to hum and shake. Sound and light condensed within Jerome’s body, like the last gasp of a dying star before it went nova. The vision seemed to pause, the shuddering, humming power concentrated within Jerome’s corpse. Then it did go nova. Power, light, and sound exploded out from the corpse, smashing into Charlie even if nothing in the kitchen moved in the slightest. His vision wavered and tumbled. If he’d had a body, he would have been thrown tail over teakettle.

When Charlie’s vision finally cleared, Jerome still lay slumped on the floor, read rolled to one side, limp in death. But towering above the body stood a shimmering spirit form – Jerome, as he must have looked in life. Tall, shaggy haired, with a stern visage, his clothes were clean and pressed, but a hacksaw hung from his right hand, clashing with his khakis. He frowned as he looked down at his former body, more confused than angry, and then Charlie saw a light begin to kindle in his eyes. It swirled, slowly at first, but ever increasing in speed and intensity, until the ghost’s eyes became miniature suns and Charlie somehow felt the heat they radiated. As Jerome’s eyes blazed to a horrible pentacle, light began to bleed to the rest of Jerome’s form, animating it and imbuing it with a horrible imitation of life.

Jerome turned from his body and raised the hacksaw. Charlie could hear him shout as he passed through the kitchen wall, “Maggie! Maggie! Where are they?! WHERE ARE MY CHILDREN?” As he faded into the wall, Charlie could hear a woman wailing in response and what sounded like the bawl of an infant.

And with that, Charlie was back along the river, staring at the Shepherd’s blurry face. He fell to his knees as he did, gasping for breath and shaking uncontrollably. The Shepherd stood in the same position he had been in when Charlie arrived, watching passively.

“Jerome was mine, magling. His death I gift to you. The beings you seek to destroy are no simple shades. They are not tired wisps of faded memory. They are beings born of rage, fear, and despair. If you enter their demesne unprepared, they will savage your mind just as they endlessly savage one another.”

Charlie shook his head to try and clear it of the memory of Jerome dragging a hacksaw back and forth across his belly. Charlie looked up at the Shepherd, “Well, what do you recommend?”

The Shepherd pointed and suddenly Charlie felt the heavy weight of the amulet Hudson had tossed him in his hand. “My talisman will draw the spirits’ abode from the NeverNever world fully into your reality. It will clothe them in flesh and make them vulnerable.”

Charlie nodded. That tracked. If they could pull the house fully into the real world, the spirits would be forced to animate an ectoplasmic body, an ectoplasmic body that could presumably be destroyed. But…

“There’s a catch here somewhere, isn’t there?”

Charlie got the impression that the Shepherd was grinning somewhere behind his pixilated mask. “Indeed. The shades will be drawn into your world, made vulnerable. But they will also be freed from their tie to the place of their deaths. They will be able to roam freely.”

The amulet felt like lead in Charlie’s hand. It drove him to his knees as the Shepherd walked up beside him. The Shepherd plucked the amulet from Charlie’s hands and draped the chain over Charlie’s neck instead. Its weight pulled him to this hands and knees. As his head bowed, the Shepherd bent over to whisper in his ear. “You must destroy them, Charlie Harper, or they will destroy you and run rampant over the people of your city. Good hunting.”

With that, the Shepherd grasped Charlie by the back of his shirt and pitched him ten yards into the river. The medallion was an anchor around his neck, dragging him beneath the waters. As he sank, the Shepherd’s voice whispered again in his ear, even though he could still see his body standing tall along the shoreline. “Keep the amulet if you survive, Charlie Harper. Perhaps you will have need of my insight again sometime.”
______________________________________________________________________________________________

Charlie awoke to Hudson pounding on his chest and kneeling in to perform rescue breaths. Anxious to avoid another awkward incident regarding personal space, Charlie crab-walked backwards as quickly as he could between one chest compression and another.

“Damnit Hudson! I’m fine!” Charlie sat up and held his hand to his throbbing chest. “Shit, what the hell are you doing?”

“What the hell am I doing?” Hudson replied, “You collapsed and stopped breathing. See if I ever give you CPR again.”

David turned from where he had been standing with his back to Hudson, that archaic pistol of his cocked and drawn. “We were worried, Charlie. You caught the amulet and then just fell. Hudson saw that you were not breathing. We thought it might have been an attack.”

Charlie grimaced, more in recognition that he might have to apologize again than in pain. Still, he had been the one dragged to some bullshit dimension. “I had a little chat with the Shepherd.” Charlie quickly related the encounter to them. He thought he saw David’s eyes widen briefly when he described the Shepherd’s appearance, but he chalked it up to trauma and shadow.

“So, we’ve got a weapon?” Hudson asked when Charlie was done.

“Looks that way. Double-edged, but it ought to help us get the job done.”

“I hate to be a wet blanket here,” David interjected, Collier still dangling from his hand, “but is using this amulet altogether wise? At the moment, the spirits are contained. I am as enthusiastic about developing the local economy as the next small businessman, but there are no proton packs in my workshop. I am a clockmaker, not a ghostbuster. I am not entirely comfortable with the prospect of untethering a bunch of spirits and setting them loose on the city.”

“Well, they only get to run loose if we don’t kill’em,” Charlie replied, “And besides, I was given the distinct impression that this wasn’t exactly a request.” David frowned at that, worry creeping into his eyes. “Hudson, what do you say?”

Hudson responded by walking over to his car and pulling a 12-gauge Remington from the trunk. He grabbed a box of shells as well, chambering one round before putting two more into the breech. He turned back to his companions. “I say we quit talking and start kicking down doors.”

David looked at Charlie who, typically, shrugged and loosened the wrench tucked into his belt. “Very well constable. Let us proceed. Before we go however….” David trotted over to his Jaguar and grabbed a box from the backseat. He pulled the top off as he walked back and withdrew a grey felt Stetson. Brushed to a sheen and shaped beautifully, it sported a black leather hatband decorated with small silver conchos carved to look like gears.

“A gift,” David said. “A Ramsay original to replace the ‘magic bullet’. You simply have not looked the same since you lost your hat at McCullough’s. It should provide you a bit of protection in the forthcoming confrontation as well.”

Hudson felt a tingle run through him as he set the hat on his head. “Now it’s a party. Let’s do this. Before the ghosts get free and I gotta start sleeping on Javier’s couch.”
______________________________________________________________________________________________

The door landed with a boom as Hudson’s Luccheses ripped it from its hinges, “And I’m all outta bubblegum!”

Shotgun lowered, Hudson leapt through the door, clearing the corners while Charlie and David covered his flanks. The flashlight attached to the barrel of Hudson’s shotgun swept across the shadowed room. Seconds passed as they held their position, breathing echoing through the room. Nothing, however, responded to their entrance.

“Well,” Charlie said, “That was anti-climactic.”

Hudson lowered the barrel of his shotgun, holding it in the crook of his arm, “Waste of a good one-liner if you ask me,” he replied. Long seconds past while nothing continued to leap out at them and try to eat their face. “No use waiting around here. Follow me.”

They kept the same formation as they crept further into the first room. Hudson took the lead, shotgun sweeping the area as Charlie and David covered him. Mystical energy shimmered soundlessly around Charlie’s wrench while David’s pistol seemed to hum in the dark to his right.

The room brought to mind adjectives like dilapidated and decrepit. Wires dangled from jagged holes in the ceiling and wallpaper hung torn and mildewing from the walls. Only scattered pieces of broken paneling and an old mattress lay on the floor. The emptiness gave the room an almost cavernous feel and their footsteps echoed in the darkness. The temperature plummeted as they walked further into the room, dropping so sharply that by the time Hudson stood in the center of the room, his could see his breath as he exhaled. Each of the companions shivered as they waited, and not only from the cold.

“Alright, we’re sure there are ghosts here right?” Hudson asked, eyes still scanning the shadows in the corners.

Charlie lifted his wrench and let a little power bleed into it. Light began to shine into the shadowy corners, revealing nothing more than the same scattering of debris. “That sheep-fucker the Shepherd showed Jerome dying in the kitchen.” He struggled to keep his teeth from chattering, “Might be a place to start.”

Hudson nodded grimly, “Alright, Charlie, you got my six. David, you’re drag. I’ll take point.” Hudson took in the confused expressions of his companions as he started toward the kitchen and sighed. “Just follow me.”

Stealth being out of the question, Hudson settled for a frontal assault again and kicked open the door to the kitchen. The door failed to crash to the ground this time, but Hudson did manage to rip it from the top hinge so that it hung drunkenly from the doorframe. A quick glance around the kitchen showed that it was much as Charlie had described: dingy tiles, faux granite, and rusting appliances. Instead of a body bleeding on the floor, there was only a dark stain to mark where Jerome Yates had breathed his last. Long moments passed once again, but the kitchen stayed stubbornly empty. Only the squealing of the remaining hinge marred the silence. Finally, Hudson took the shotgun from his shoulder and knelt to examine the dark stain on the tiles near the door.

The ghost of Jerome Yates roared up from beneath the floor as Hudson knelt. To Hudson, he looked almost translucent, faded around the edges, and glowing with a faint blue light. Jerome felt solid enough, however, as he plowed into him. The ghost wrapped fraying arms around Hudson and lifted him from the floor. Hudson felt the solidity of Jerome’s form as he flew backward into the counter, but as he his back slammed into the sink, he could feel the ghost start to ooze into him. Hudson’s body rebounded from the counter and Jerome’s spirit body started to merge with his. It was as if a layer of slime had slid beneath his skin and started to wrap around his body, squeezing like a phantom boa constrictor.

Jerome screamed as he and Hudson continued to join in a horrible intimacy. His mouth distended like a snake swallowing its prey and the barest hint of corruption could be smelled as it howled. Jerome struck like a cobra at Hudson’s neck, his vaporous fangs sinking into Hudson’s chest. Hudson couldn’t even scream as his back arched and spikes of pain shoot through his body. He finally uttered a feeble screech as Jerome wrenched his head back for another strike, leaving no visible marks but Hudson could feel something tear as phantom fangs tore through his chest.

Hudson gasped as the ghost was torn from him completely and thrown across the room. He felt the wraith’s limbs drag through his chest, agony that made the spirit’s fags feel like a hangnail, and was surprised when blood didn’t fly from gaping wounds. He heard the impact as the ghost slammed into the far wall, and looked up to see Charlie standing in the doorway of the kitchen. Charlie’s wrench was almost blinding as he brandished it at the wraith. Jerome’s ghost writhed on the far wall of the kitchen, pinned like a bug in a middle-school science project.

“Damnit David, take a shot! I can’t hold this thing forever!” Charlie shouted as David slipped into the kitchen as well. He moved to the left of the door, pistol drawn. The now familiar muted rainbow of vapor flew from the Collier’s barrel, slamming into the shade and eliciting another spectral scream. Ragged holes appeared in the spirit’s flesh where the colored steam struck it, burning away at the edges.

Hudson dove under David and Charlie’s line of fire to grab his fallen shotgun. His hand found the Remington’s stock, but before he could bring it to bear, the spirit slipped the bonds of Charlie’s spell. Jerome’s form disappeared as the ghost oozed down the wall, sliding beneath its bonds. As it cleared Charlie’s spell, the ghost didn’t so much move as stretch through the air toward Hudson, elongating itself like some sort of hideous eel. Spectral teeth flashed as the ghost slammed into Hudson again, sending more frozen spikes radiating through his chest and knocking him back to the ground. The ghost writhed nauseatingly on top of Hudson, raising his head for another strike while Hudson tried desperately to drag his shotgun into position.

But Charlie was there again, wrench flashing, his cry of “Cumhacht!” echoing in the room. A naked ball of force caught the ghostly eel underneath the chin, stopping it inches from Hudson’s neck and throwing it into the ceiling. Charlie slashed the air with his wrench and the ghost slammed into the floor like a meteor. The house shook with the impact and a colorless gel exploded from the crater. David and Charlie grabbed the edge of the counter to keep their feet while Hudson threw an arm over this face to shield himself as pieces of the ceiling crashed around him. For a moment, dust and smoke obscured the far side of the kitchen.

Then Jerome burst forth from the haze, his scream blowing the dust before him. He had reverted to his original appearance, but much the worse for wear. The left side of its skull had caved in, while its right arm dangled uselessly at its side, attached only by a ghostly tendon. Its movements were still vicious but uncoordinated. It swung wildly as it stumbled from the dust, moans filled with hatred and contempt.

Hudson couldn’t bring his shotgun to bear from his position on the floor, but his hand slipped under his jacket to find the handle of his revolver. The ghost stretched again. The fingers of its remaining arm reaching for Hudson’s throat, claws brushing the skin. Hudson ignored the renewed waves of bitter cold that flashed through him as he shoved the revolver under Jerome’s chin. His arm quivered with the effort of holding the angle of the barrel away from David and Charlie. The hammer fell and more colorless gel exploded out of the back of the ghost’s head.

Hudson watched as hatred faded from the spirit’s eyes to be replaced by…confusion. The edges of Jerome’s body started fray, sublimating into ectoplasm and dripping onto Hudson’s jacket. Hudson saw Jerome’s features go slack and the spark fade from his eyes. He watched as the final wisps of the ghost evaporated above him. From the edge of his hearing, Hudson thought he heard someone whisper, “Maggie,” before the last of the ghost’s form collapsed into ectoplasm. He fell back to the floor and starred up at the ceiling, waiting for the slime to evaporate.

Hudson hauled himself to his feet a few minutes later, stooping to retrieve his new hat from where it had fallen during the fight. Despite his own battered appearance, the Stetson was pristine. Even the ectoplasmic slime had slid right off it. David, it seemed, knew his business.

Hudson settled the Stetson back on his head as he turned to face David and Charlie, who were still leaning on the counter breathing heavily. He nodded toward the evaporating slimed that still pooled on the floor. “That was a ghost?” Hudson said.

“That was one ghost,” Charlie clarified.

“Alright. Well, your amulet works Charlie. He didn’t die easy, but he did die.” Hudson looked down at the slime covering his jacket and his boots, “And they die disgusting. I just polished these boots.” He took a firm grasp on his shotgun and brushed past the other two to walk out of the kitchen. “Let’s go kill a few more.”
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They decided to clear the basement before proceeding to the second floor. Hudson pointed out that if they had to make a strategic retreat (“Run like scared little girls,” Charlie offered), then it was best to ensure that nothing else that wanted to eat their face could block their exit.

Water damage became more apparent as the trio stood at the stop of the stairs into the basement. Several stairs were missing and they could smell the mildew growing on the walls. From the darkness underground, they could hear the steady drip of water falling somewhere in the basement.

“Grenades,” Charlie muttered.

“What?” Hudson asked.

“It sure would be nice if we had some grenades, don’t you think? Couple of grenades down the stairs. Boom. Boom. We go mop up spiritual residue. Do you think you could make us some grenades, David?”

“I suppose…” David frowned, “Actually, it wouldn’t be all that much different from Hudson’s magic bullet. I could – ”

“David,” Hudson interrupted, “Do you happen to have any grenades on you right now?”

“Well, no – ”

“And how secure are you in the structural integrity of this house?”

“Not particularly I suppose – ”

“No grenades,” Hudson said emphatically. “We do it like the kitchen, except this time with less me getting smacked around. Who wants to volunteer for point?” The silence was overwhelming if not surprising. Hudson sighed, “Alright, in formation on me. Put anything we see down fast. I’m gettin’ too old to be slammed into walls by ghosts.”

The stairs creaked as Hudson hurried down them and his boots splashed in stagnant water as he landed on the cold stone floor of the basement. The light from Charlie’s wrench bathed the room in a faint glow while the flashlight on Hudson’s shotgun swept across the room. The three of them fanned out across the room, shoes splashing in the water.

The attack came quickly this time. As Hudson’s flashlight swept across the room, a boiler in the corner roared to life, fire casting a harsh red glare over the room. The grate sprang open sending smoke and flame billowing into the room. The three of them threw themselves to the ground as the fire engulfed the room before coalescing on the ceiling.

Charlie got the impression of dozens of infant faces carved of fire somehow molded together, all glaring down at him from the ceiling. It was as if someone had beheaded dozens of plastic dolls and then haphazardly melted them together to create a massive cloud of infant eyes and chubby cheeks. No plastic doll, however, had ever been molded with the expression of rage that poured from these tiny monsters. Dozens of fire-carved infant faces shrieked as they dove from the ceiling straight toward Charlie.

The hideous monster did not catch them entirely unaware. Charlie’s wrench flashed up from where he lay on the ground and another wrecking ball of force streaked toward the cloud of angry young faces. David’s pistol flashed in the harsh scarlet light as well, its rainbow light painting the scene in a kaleidoscope of shifting colors. Both shots slammed into the creature, disintegrating several of the wailing faces that now screamed in uncomprehending pain rather than rage. The edges of the wound David inflicted continued to eat at the essence of the ghost, creeping outward. The ghost thrashed angrily, slamming into the sides of the walls, causing dust and debris to rain down from the ceiling and walls but coming no where near the companions. The howls trailed off after a moment, replaced by a muted whimpering and the mass of sobbing infant faces falling to the floor like a wet towel. Steam hissed where the weakly thrashing blanket of infant faces landed in the water that covered the floor.

Hudson strode over to the spirit, ears ringing from the earlier screams that seemed to echo in his mind. He ignored the heat of the steam as he brought the shotgun to his shoulder. He wondered about the life of this eternal infant as he tried to find a target among the dozens of squalling, writhing heads. Judging by the faces, this poor child had not been more than six months old when it died. Then it had been condemned to live a limbo existence, hiding in this dank hole, wailing at an unfair world it couldn’t possibly understand. Forced to exist in an instant of nothing but confusion and violence.

Hudson felt the shotgun punch his shoulder as he aimed and fired at the largest face he could see. He locked eyes with that baby’s eyes as it faded into ectoplasm and added to the stagnant puddles that littered the floor. Confusion and violence.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________

With no more wailing, silence lay heavy in the basement. The light from the boiler and Charlie’s wrench faded too, until only the beam of Hudson’s flashlight cut through the gloom, aimed at the puddle of rapidly evaporating ectoplasm. Water and debris fell to the floor as the last of the child’s ghost melted into the puddles.

Hudson ejected his spent shell and loaded another into the breech. His back was turned to his companions, so they didn’t see the glistening in his eyes. “One more floor,” he coughed. “Let’s get to it. We’re losing daylight.”
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The stairs to the second floor were in much better repair than the ones into the basement. The carpet just looked like it needed a steam cleaning and the wallpaper only needed a good scrub. More light flooded down from the upstairs windows as well, making the stairs appear practically blazing after the gloom of the basement and the first floor.

However, on some subliminal level, each of them could tell that they were walking into the heart of darkness. Each of the stairs rang sharply as they stole up to the second floor. The light, while brighter, cast a sickly yellow pall on the walls. Even the angle of the stairs seemed to twist like a mobius strip.

Each one of them could feel the hatred of the house pressing upon their consciousness. It whispered to them. ‘Go back. Last warning.’ It was giving them the opportunity to turn back, not out of compassion or fear, but because the residents of the final floor found mortal contact distasteful, repulsive. The companions were an imposition, not a threat, and the spirits wanted to return to their brooding.

The tenor of the silence changed as Hudson stepped foot on the landing of the second floor. The menacing disdain of the house became an oppressive loathing. Hudson felt it as a pressure on the back of his mind that doubled and re-doubled again like a vise slowly squeezing his skull. Icicles formed on Hudson’s mustache as the temperature plummeted again. He glanced over his shoulder to reassure himself of his backup. Behind him the stairs seemed to stretch infinitely downward. Empty.
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Charlie kept his eyes fixed on Hudson’s back as the stairs twisted and turned. His wrench dangled from his hand, power already flowing through it, soundless sparks dribbling downward. He closed his eyes for a moment as they reached the landing, gathering his nerve before the coming struggle. His power reserves were waning after the last two conflicts. Throwing around bowling balls of pure force was tiring, and Charlie’s magical tank was running a little low. He raised his eyes to sweep the landing as he focused and found himself staring at an empty room.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________

Between one step and the next, David found himself not walking out onto the second floor landing, but into a cramped, dimly lit room with a broken crib standing in the corner. He glanced behind him. The door – which had most definitely been a staircase moments ago – was shut. Something damp landed on his cheek as he turned back to the room. David swiped his hand across his face and held it in front of his eyes. Scarlet liquid stained his palm. He cast his gaze upward. A bubbling sea of crimson blood covered the ceiling and started flowing down the walls.
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Charlie took little time to observe the room, despite its interesting quality of not being where it was supposed to be. He spun back around to yank at the door handle. Or at least he tried. As his fingers touched the handle, Charlie felt something grab his shoulder. Clammy and cold, it locked onto his shoulder with an unbreakable grip and spun him around. Suddenly, he was staring down at a long-nailed hand streaking toward him. The fingers closed around his throat and started to squeeze.
______________________________________________________________________________________________

Hudson wasted no time. He could not see the bottom of the stairs, but he could see two doors from his position at the top of them. The one to the left had the faded painting of a caterpillar on the door, its cuteness at odds with the rest of the drab interior. The other door was directly in front of him, solid and without decoration. From behind it, he heard a muffled cry. Lowering his shotgun, he rushed forward and smashed his shoulder into the door.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________

David turned to run when he felt a touch on his arm. His pistol materialized in his fist as he spun. When he stopped, David was looking down the barrel of his Collier at a ghost. A pair of ghosts. A pair of child ghosts, a boy and girl holding hands with expressions of terror rather than a roiling mass of fiery infant faces. As he peered down the barrel, David recognized the children from Maggie’s locket. The brother reached out his hand and pushed the pistol aside, pleading mutely with David. David let the barrel of the revolver fall as the child moved closer and reached into David’s vest pocket. The ghostly hand pulled the locket from David’s pocket, opened it, and smiled. Behind him, David heard the door creak as it opened. The young child slipped the locket into his pocket, looked up at David and smiled as the pair of them faded away.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________

David peaked out through the door. The landing had returned, stairs on his right. A glance to his left showed an open door hanging by its hinges, the sounds of a struggle finally penetrating David’s ears. David brought his pistol up as he charged through the door. He was able to glimpse Hudson tearing Charlie away from a pair of grasping hands that reached out from the wall. Hudson slammed the butt of his shotgun into the arms with one hand while tossing Charlie back to the ground. David slipped to the right as stepped through the door, looking for a clean shot at the grasping arms. They disappeared back into the wall as David moved further into the room, his gun still trained where the hands had disappeared.

A quick glance showed Charlie gasping on the floor, but in no immediate danger. David swung around to the right to clear the rest of the room which gave him an excellent opportunity to see a ceramic sink coming flying out of the bathroom door. It shattered against his chest, only his armored vest keeping it from caving in his sternum. He flew backward, crashing into Hudson and bringing both of them to the ground. On top of Charlie.

Had anything followed up on the attack, it could have easily taken the three of them out while they tried to untangle themselves without out shooting, braining or crushing each other. After a flurry of activity, Hudson and Charlie were standing back to back while David had pulled himself into a sitting position along the wall.

“Anything broken David?” Hudson asked, shotgun aimed at the bathroom door.

David took a deep breath while keeping his pistol trained on the bathroom door. Pain shot through him, but it seemed to be the dull throbbing of contusions and bruising rather than the sharp sting of cracked ribs. “No constable, I appear to be in one piece. Cannot say that I am feeling my best, but I have just the thing.” David stuck his left hand into one of his vest pockets and pulled out a dented flask. An exploration of another hidden pocket produced two small pills. He washed them down with a swig from the flask, keeping his Collier trained on the door the whole time.

David held out the flask to the others. “Anyone care for a drink? The Scots may be skirt-wearing sheep-lovers, but they make excellent whiskey.” Without turning from the wall where the arms had grabbed him, Charlie grabbed the flask and tipped it up. He passed it to Hudson who took a long draught before passing it back to David. David finished the dregs before slipping it back into a pocket. As the liquor burned down his throat, the pain in his chest started to fade. A bit.

“Charlie, I now see the crucial flaw in going first,” David said as he struggled to his feet. “Hudson, how do you feel about knocking open that bathroom door while Charlie and I cover you?”

Hudson chuckled as he stepped toward the door, “Sounds go-”

The door flew open as Hudson spoke. A ragged specter of a woman flew out the room, her hands stretched into fearsome claws. She plunged toward Hudson’s chest, lightly gazing his ribs with her claws as he sidestepped her rush. Hudson swept off his hat as he spun, striking the ghost’s arms with the brim and driving them past his abdomen. The strike drew a shriek from the ghost, seemingly out of proportion with the attack. Charlie dove to the side as the wraith stumbled past him and saw Hudson’s boot connected with her lower back, driving her into the wall.

Unfortunately, no spectral arms came out of the wall to grasp her, but her screech as she crashed into the wall was most satisfying. The hag rebounded off the wall without hesitation though, appearing to invert herself, more than turn. Her front suddenly appeared where her back had just been. She leapt toward David without hesitation, claws slashing. Two swipes caught David in the ribs with horrible, brutal force. His vest took the brunt of the assault, but each swipe knocked the wind from him nonetheless. He struggled to aim his pistol, pushing through the pain radiating from his ribs.

Charlie’s shout of ‘Cumhacht!’ echoed again as another bowling ball of force slammed into Maggie’s ghost. She flew off David, slammed into the wall, and kept going. She crashed onto the landing, tumbling across the floor. David forced himself to his feet, ignoring the screaming of his ribs, but dove through the door quickly enough to catch Maggie’s ghost before she could rise. With John Woo-like skill, David drilled two jets of multihued stream into Maggie’s torso, tearing great chunks out of her ectoplastic flesh.

David ducked to the side as Hudson came through the door as well, shotgun pellets hitting the ghost in her stomach, causing more slime to stain the carpet. The ghost was staggering as Charlie joined them on the landing, seemingly a little unsteady himself, but a halo of cobalt light shown brightly from his wrench. The sapphire light illuminated Charlie’s eyes as he aimed the focus at the flailing spirit.

“Cumha – ” Charlie’s incantation was interrupted as two small ethereal figures materialized in front of Maggie’s wounded spirit.

“Please…Please…Don’t hurt…Don’t hurt…our mom…our mom…” Their voices bleed into one another but were just far enough from simultaneous to create an eerie echo as they pled for their mother’s spirit.

“Son of a bitch!” Charlie yelped as the Shepherd’s amulet lying on his chest suddenly burned cold, taking the spell from his mind and the fire from his blood. The two toddlers looked up at him with expressions of hope and fear that he couldn’t ignore. He let his hand fall to his side and slid wrench into his belt.

“God damn all ghosts, spirits, and non-mortal entities!” Charlie swore as he turned away from the children and their dying (again) mother. All the fight seemed to have left her as well. Ectoplasm dripped onto the dingy carpet around her as she floated to her feet and wrapped an arm protectively around each of her children. Hudson shrugged as David looked toward him, changing from implacable monster hunter to wide-eyed bachelor in length of time it took David to roll his eyes and holster his pistol. David knelt quietly in front of the phantom siblings, each one of them latched on to one of their mother’s legs.

“We mean her no harm, little ones,” David realized that ectoplasm was soaking into his pants leg. “Well…no more harm anyway. But she cannot stay here. Neither can you.” David looked up at Maggie. The rage in her eyes had faded and a spectral hand smoothed the hair of each of her children. Ectoplasm still dripped from the gouges in her side, but she seemed lucid. For a ghost anyway. David looked into her eyes, “It is time to move on.”

Maggie’s eyes flared as David spoke, but the anger faded as her son reached up and grabbed her hand. The boy and girl spoke in their asynchronous stereo. “The locket…the altar…the attic.” A hatch opened in the ceiling as the ethereal family faded into mist and swirled up into the opening.

Hudson grabbed the ladder and pulled in down so the three of them could follow. As they poked their heads above the rafters, they could see the family huddling around a small altar in the corner of a massive open room. The three spirits cast a faint glow throughout the room.

The three companions tread softly over the rafters, picking their way warily across the rotting floor. As they joined the three ghosts, the boy laid his mother’s amulet on the top of the altar. A circular slab of stone with a small mirror on the back surrounded by mounds of melted wax, faint dark stains marred the altar’s surface. As David knelt beside the small family, he could see shadowy tears in Maggie’s eyes as she clung to the children and starred at the locket.

“Maggie. Maggie!” David called until he got her attention. “You don’t have to stay. The others have already…” David hesitated. “They have moved on. So can you.”

Without taking her ghostly eyes from the altar, Maggie lifted a small teddy bear to her chest, incongruously lying on the floor next to one of the candles. Her voice was barely audible to David only inches away. “Toby…?”

David hesitated for a moment. Toby must have been the_ enfant terrible_ in the basement, who they had turned into so much ectoplasmic slime. Surprisingly, Charlie stepped in to reassure the mourning ghost. David even thought he heard real compassion in his voice.

“We laid your boy to rest mam. Your husband too. There’s no reason to cling to this realm. Take your children and meet the rest of your family in whatever comes next,” Charlie laid his hand on the ghost’s shoulder. Maggie rested hers on top of Charlie’s and smiled up at him. David felt a bit piqued that Charlie’s smooth lie got him a smile but his rapport had earned him nothing but looks of confusion and wariness. He grimaced as his another spike of pain from his ribs shot through his body. Life, even the afterlife apparently, was far from fair.

The spirits started to fade from sight as he watched, seeming to almost solidify before they started to fade, lines growing sharper while becoming fainter and more translucent. A few moments later the room was empty except for David, Charlie, and Hudson. Charlie heaved a sigh of relief a few minutes after the spirits faded, unironically wiping sweat from his forehead.

“Thank god that worked. Hate to see what she’d have done if she had found out we annihilated her bouncing baby monster.” Charlie reached over and picked up a book lying next to the altar where the bear had fallen. He thumbed quickly through a few pages. “Looks like Maggie’s journal.” Charlie slipped the slim volume into his pocket. “I’ll give it a look see later, might learn something.” He glanced at the other two. “We got any pressin’ reason to stay?” Everyone shook their heads. “Then let’s get the hell out of here.”

The trek back through the house was as uneventful as the first time had been thrilling. The temperature had risen as well and Hudson began to sweat under his jacket. He had almost expected an intrepid chase sequence after the ghosts faded, dodging fallen debris as they raced through a collapsing ruin. They would crash through the front door and leap off the porch just as the house collapsed in on itself. One of them, Hudson’s money was on Charlie, would make a pun-based quip as they lay on the lawn, panting and covered in dust.

Instead, David and Hudson supported each other as they limped down the stairs and through the rooms while Charlie took point. Nothing leapt out at them and no spirits manifested and tried to eat their face. Instead, three wounded men shuffled through a wrecked house (slightly more wrecked since they had shown up) and back out into the fading daylight.

Since fitting all three of them into Hudson’s rental was out of the question, they hobbled over to David’s Jaguar. David, obviously overcome with pain, tossed his keys to Charlie as Hudson helped him slide into the backseat. Hudson shuffled over to the passenger side while Charlie took the keeps and coaxed the stately engine to life. The last daylight faded as Hudson called Cassaro while Charlie mandandled the Jaguar onto the road and they drove off into the sunset.
______________________________________________________________________________________________

Two diminutive figures shaded their eyes as they watched the motorized coach pull out onto the asphalt.

“They defeated the spirits,” said the one on the right.

“Skillful mortals indeed,” the other replied. “Should tell Lord Vior?”

“Or the Lhiannan Sidhe,” the first creature said. “This information could be traded for much influence.”

“The tale of their success will be stale soon. The Cold Court will move quickly to occupy this nexus. Better is the information on the abilities of their hirelings. Firearms, force, crafting.”

The first creature raised a tiny hand to stroke his silky beard, “Hmm, correct you may be. Quickly have these mortals grown in power and daring. The void will they fill? Perforce, the Court must confront them either way.”

“But which aspect of the Court, my liege?”

“That remains to be seen, Lieb. Come.”

The creature slid down the bank into the storm drain. The other followed and together they trotted into the culvert pipe. A few feet inside, the first one stopped and waved his hand over an unremarkable portion of the concrete. A small door shimmered into existence and the figures darted through the opening. The door winked back out of existence as it shut and only a trickle of water remained in the pipe.

View
The Heights of Terror: Session 1
Ghost Story

“Ten…Eleven…Twelve!” Hudson grunted as he racked the bar on the final rep. As he sat up on the bench, he looked around the Extended Stay Deluxe’s closet sized weight room. Couple of treadmills, an elliptical, two bikes, and a weight rack. And some moron on CNN jabbering away about trade sanctions. He’d have turned the shit off earlier, but the remote was no longer Velcroed to the side of the TV. Hudson briefly considered flinging a dumbbell at it while he grabbed his towel from the bench. It wasn’t like he had anything else to do.

Twenty minutes later, Hudson had decided to forgo a set on the treadmill but proceed with a drink. He was back in his room, home suite #216, which sported a fantastic view of the water treatment plant across the street. He’d kicked off his shoes as he walked in the room and then grabbed the half-full – he was an optimist, damnit – bottle of Maker’s Mark sitting on the nightstand. As a took a swig he considered that, given the state of his bank account, he might have to switch to Kentucky Gentlemen if this ‘administrative leave’ went on much longer.

A quarter of a bottle and half a pack of cigarettes later, Hudson sat on his hotel bed ignoring ESPN and the dozens of Styrofoam boxes scattered around the room. He had already hit the local shooting range the morning and cleaned his guns afterwards. He had gone the gym when he got back – he was in better shape than he’d been since the Academy – and he had even eaten breakfast this morning. A stale bagel from the hotel’s lounge, but it had been actual food. Now it was one o’clock and he had nothing to do but drink and brood.

His Captain had not been thrilled with the Lobo incident, but at least it had a pretty open and shut shooting. Not entirely by the book, but not bad. A week or so of paid leave, a quick investigation by IA, and then back on the job. Then, just as his administrative leave would have been ending, the Cauldron Incident – as Charlie informed him the supernatural community referred to it – happened. Hudson had started that day by shooting a civilian. The vic had been enthralled, but he doubted the review committee would see that as a mitigating circumstance. For an encore, he kidnapped an illegal immigrant, violated the Fourth Amendment, and negotiated with a known felon. For his coup de grace, he had executed a man. He might also have jaywalked at one point.

All of it had been necessary, all of it had been done in the pursuit of justice, and none of that mattered. So far, DPS’s Internal Affairs squad had not been able to pin anything definite on Hudson, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. They knew he had been at the Cauldron and left the scene. He’d told them it was in pursuit of a suspect, but that only made them ask a series of infuriatingly reasonable questions. Why he had not called the incident in earlier? Why he had not followed procedure when pursuing the suspect? Why had the building’s security cameras malfunctioned? Thankfully, the crime scene unit could not make heads or tails of the mess at The Cauldron, so Hudson was unlikely to be charged with attempted murder. He knocked back another swig of Maker’s.

Unfortunately, the police canvas of McCullough’s neighborhood had netted a couple folks who had seen his car that afternoon. Unlike most witnesses, they had given startlingly accurate descriptions of him and his companions. Hudson’s inquiries shortly thereafter concerning the whereabouts of one Eric McCullough, a suspect who had been involved in a gang turf war (the working theory of the powers that be) that afternoon had only raised more questions. The fact that McCullough was still in the wind made IA even more suspicious.

And Hudson’s explanations had been less than satisfactory. As his Captain put it, “It won’t stick like bullshit, but it sure smells like bullshit.” Hudson had very firmly quit talking after that. His administrative leave, now unpaid, had lasted almost a month with no end in sight. The Captain had asked for his cruiser back, so now he had to drive to the range in a rented Hyundai. Thank god his guns had been personal property or he’d have even less to do every day before engaging in some serious drinking.

As another swig burned his throat, his cell phone started to buzz. Hudson considered letting it ring. He was none too sober right now – evidenced by his sudden interest in WNBA highlights – and it was most likely another ‘request’ to come speak with IA. Nonetheless, he reached over to the nightstand and grabbed his cell.

“Pearce.”

“Excuse me, am I speaking with Hudson Pearce?” Male, prissy tone, Hudson could almost hear the stick up the guy’s ass.

“Possibly,” Hudson thought it best, given his current state of inebriation, to stick to short responses. Multiple syllables might be an issue though.

“I’m terribly sorry to disturb you sir. I’m Bartholomew Quinlan, an Associate with the Law Firm of Cassaro & Bellini,” Bartholomew, Hudson thought, no wonder this guy sounded like a dick. “Mr. Cassaro has asked me to schedule a meeting between the two of you for sometime very soon. Would you be available – ”

“Slow down, hoss. I’m new to town. Who the hell’s Cassaro and why does he want to talk to me?” That was good. All small words. Except Cassaro. Damned Italians.

“I could not say sir. Mr. Cassaro has not seen fit to share the reason for this meeting with me,” And that just burns you up, doesn’t it, you ladder-climbing little shit? “However, he has authorized me to say that he would like to discuss a business proposition with you. He is prepared to compensate you for your time.”

Hudson’s mind had started to wander after the revelation that Cassaro was an attorney. Last thing he wanted was to spend his time talking to another damned lawyer. Then Bartholomew mentioned money. Hudson glanced at his wallet, his very thin wallet. And his bottle, his mostly not full bottle. Still optimistic. Shit, at least it would be an excuse to shower. “Hell son, I’m practically on sabbatical right now. When’s your boss want to meet?”

“How’s tomorrow morning, Mr. Pearce? Say, 9 am?”

“You don’t drink a lot, do you Bart?”

“Excuse me sir?!”

“Nevermind, son. Tell Mr. Cassaro I’ll meet him at 10 tomorrow. You got an address?”
____________________________________________________________________________________________________

David Ramsey disliked computers. They were fickle machines, heartless and cold. He preferred account books, ledgers, typewriters. Davie had several typewriters he used depending on his mood, all of them beautifully maintained antiques. The feel of paper, the scratch of a pencil, the click of a typewriter. These simple pleasures made balancing his monthly accounts one of David’s favorite chores. Especially when the accounts were so very, very good. A computer would have calculated David’s revenue in nanoseconds. With his ledgers, David got to carefully, thoughtfully, add all his sales and subtract all his expenses by hand. This gave him ages to bask in the glow of record profits.

Even with the added expense of taking on Javier part-time, his business had been booming since the Cauldron Incident. Diane had shown gratitude for her rescue by sending several clients his way, and he already had orders for at least a dozen Ramsay Originals. The orders ranged from simple pendants, to watches, to one local Sidhe lord who wanted a hexagonal grandfather clock made entirely of used records (for some reason). Since he always required a substantial deposit before beginning any commission, his accounts were practically bulging. On top of that, orders for repairs were so numerous that Aziz was handling most of the simple ones – David always reviewed his work for quality of course – and Javier was manning the register and phones more often than not. His English had improved considerably.

Speak of the devil and so he appears, David thought as Javier stuck his head into the office.

“Javier! What can I do for you on this most excellent of mornings?”

“Phone for you. A Senor Quinlan. Muy importante, he said.”

“Gracias, Javier. I will take it in here,” David said as he reached for his personal phone. He leaned back in his chair and propped his feet on the edge of his desk as he answered it.

“David Ramsay speaking.”

“Mr. Ramsay, my name is Bartholomew Quinlan. I’m an Associate with the Law Firm of Cassaro & Bellini. Mr. Cassaro would like to schedule a meeting with you at your earliest possible convenience. Would you be available tomorrow morning, around 10am?” Deferential manner, quite polite, straight to the point. David liked this Bartholomew already.

“Mr. Quinlan, I am extraordinarily busy these days, but I might be able to spare an hour or so. Why does Mr. Cassaro want to see me?” David hoped the law firm wanted some decoration for their office. Perhaps an imposing clockwork statue, some corporate ‘art’ designed to convey how low their legal testicles hung. A design started forming in David’s head. Gears, lots of bronze gears, lightly aged, merging at odd angles, like a steampunk Escher sculpture.

“I’m sorry, sir, but Mr. Cassaro did not provide me with the specifics. He simply said that he wanted to discuss a business venture with you, something about antiques. He said it was dreadfully urgent, and I am authorized to send a car for you in the morning, if that makes it more convenient for you.”

David took a moment to enjoy the design in his mind before shelving it. It did not sound like Cassaro wanted to discuss reputation-enhancing sculpture. However, he would be lying if he said he was not curious about why the founding partner of Houston’s preeminent supernatural law firm wanted to meet with him. He was doing well, but Cassaro & Bellini represented people with real money.

“Mr. Quinlan, I must admit you have piqued my curiosity. I would be happy to meet with Mr. Cassaro tomorrow morning. Send the car to my workshop around 9:30 or so please.”

“Of course Mr. Ramsay, and thank you.”
____________________________________________________________________________________________________

“You’ve reached the voicemail of Charlie Harper. Don’t talk unless you’ve got business.” Click.

“Mr. Harper. Your presence is requested tomorrow morning at the offices of Cassaro & Bellini in the Scanlan Building at 10 am. Mr. Cassaro would like to discuss a business proposition with you. He has authorized me to offer you considerable compensation simply for attending the meeting. We have arranged a car for you in the morning. It will be at your house around 9:15.”
____________________________________________________________________________________________________

Hudson frowned as he unfolded himself from his Hyundai. Or was it a Kia? Who cared? Americans, Texans, should drive trucks and SUVs. Giant, earth-killing mountains of Detroit steel that laughed at compact parking spots and made hybrid owners piss themselves. No matter what the rental agency claimed, squeezing six feet and two-hundred plus pounds into a ‘subcompact’ – what an Orwellian term – was just this side of torture. As Hudson tried to return blood flow to his calves, a limousine pulled into the parking lot and parked next to his rental. Charlie and David climbed out of the back after a young man in a fancy uniform opened the door for them. There was no fucking justice in the world.

David strode over as soon as he saw the Ranger standing by his econo car. “Hudson! So good to see you. Now the gang’s all here.” David grabbed his hand and shook it with every evidence of genuine pleasure.

Charlie was somewhat less welcoming. “Jesus Hudson, where’d you get that clown car?”

“Thanks Charlie, no one offered to pick me up in a limo.”

“Well, it would have looked a little out of place pulling up to that flophouse you live – ”

“Gentlemen! If you could manage to stop bickering, I believe we have an appointment. I, for one, am most interested to hear Mr. Cassaro’s proposition,especially since he apparently invited us all here at the same time.” Hudson and Charlie both managed to look annoyed and chagrinned at the same time. David gestured to the door.

Several minutes, several floors, and several secretaries later, the trio was ushered into a cavernous corner office. Two walls were nothing but glass and offered a panoramic view of downtown Houston. The furnishings were all polished teak, warm and glowing with obvious attention. The carpet was thick enough to hide small animals and a bar along one wall held coffee, bagels, and other breakfast foods. It screamed money. Lots of money. Old money. Tasteful money. Powerful money.

A large circular desk sat in the back of the room near the windows. As the trio entered the office, a man stood up from behind the desk where he had been studying a thick file folder. Hudson had to admit that he was impressed. Though he was obviously on the far side of sixty, the man moved like he was much younger. No creaking hesitation as he stood from his chair, no halting steps, no bend in his back. What little hair he had left was gray edging toward white, but his beard was neatly trimmed and he wore an immaculately tailored three-piece suit. His stride was long and confident as he came around the desk.

“Thank you Sandy, I’ll take it from here. Welcome gentlemen!” His voice boomed and Hudson struggled not to wince as the man shook his hand. “Mr. Pearce, so glad you were able to come. Mr. Ramsay, Mr. Harper, thank you for coming as well. Would you like a cup of coffee? Help yourselves. As you’ve probably surmised, I’m Angelo Cassaro. Grab something and have a seat, if you would. We have business to discuss.”

Cassaro pointed to a trio of chairs in front of the desk. Hudson estimated that the chairs probably cost about he made in a year. Each. Well, his annual salary prior to his recent stint of forced vacation. Hudson did not know if it was appropriate for a public servant to feel so mercenary, but the man behind the desk certainly had his attention as he lowered himself into the chair.

Cassaro opened the file folder he had been studying when they arrived and slid on a pair of glasses from his suit pocket. “Gentlemen, I’ll come straight to the point. I represent a group of investors that are trying to redevelop some property in the Heights. They have been at it for weeks and haven’t even managed to clear the property of debris, much less demolish a house that sits on the lot. So far, we’ve had three contractors return their retainers and half a dozen labor crews walk off the job. Hell, we picked up a dozen illegals outside the Home Depot last week and they were gone by lunch. We can’t even get anyone to bid on the damn project now.” Cassaro paused to shuffle some of the papers in the folder. The three companions all glanced at each other with similar confused expressions. David was the first to respond.

“That is certainly very interesting Mr. Cassaro, but what does it have to do with my friends and I? I am a clockmaker, not a construction foreman. Likewise, my companions are both quite skilled at their trades, but I am not sure how they could help with such an issue either.”

“Mr. Ramsay, you are exactly right. Were this a simple construction problem, you and your friends would be as useless as tits on a boar hog. However, our labor issues have been accompanied by…incidents at the work site. Equipment has malfunctioned. Supplies have gone missing. Workers have walked reported seeing…well, strange shit, let’s leave it at that. No one’s lasted half an hour there without gettin’ the heebie jebbies. Hell, the heebie jebbies would be an improvement. They’ve been terrified.” Cassaro paused for a moment to look out the window. “Listen, I’ve looked into the incidents – discretely – and I’m convinced that they’re supernatural in nature. Something weird is going on at the property and my clients would like to hire the three of you to investigate the situation.”

Charlie piped up before anyone could stop him. “What do you mean by investigate?”

Cassaro tilted his head to look at Charlie over his glasses. The lawyer had apparently developed quite a glare over the years. “Investigate, from the Latin investīgātus, for to find out what the hell is going on and put a stop to it. That clear enough for you Mr. Harper?”

Charlie remained unimpressed, “Good enough. What’s in it for us?”

Hudson noticed that Cassaro, despite his glare, did not look directly into Charlie’s eyes. Guy was clued-in if nothing else. “Well, Mr. Harper, I could encourage your participation by failing to mention your name to another client of mine, a Mr. Christos Palles, concerning some of his missing…inventory. However, I believe I’ll stick with the old standby: money. The investors I represent are losing money every day that construction doesn’t go forward.” Cassaro pulled three stapled packets from his folder and handed one to each of the men. “This summarizes the details of the proposed agreement. Payment to be based on a sliding scale related to speed of completion. Payment to be transferred to each of you immediately upon completion of the contract, contingent upon a follow-up investigation of the property, completed by me and anyone else my clients choose. The contract is binding under the Accords as well as mundane courts of law. I’m sure your friends can fill you in on the specifics of the Accords Mr. Pearce. Any questions?” Cassaro looked up from his folder.

David glanced through the packet. He began to smile as his gaze lingered on the compensation. This was even better than a commission for a piece of bollocks corporate sculpture. He felt almost like raising his hand, “Interesting proposition, Mr. Cassaro, and I must admit the compensation has me intrigued. However, I must ask, why us?”

Cassaro looked up from his papers and folded his hands together. “Because a couple of weeks ago I hear that the three of y’all threw down with a bona fide warlock. Tracked him down, took him down, and saved the girl. People I trust tell me it was good work. My firm represents a number of supernatural clients, so I’ve often got work for people that can handle situations like this. Think of this contract as an audition. It goes well, I might have more work for y’all in the future.”

Charlie turned back to the conversation from where he had been staring out the window. Hudson noticed he was trying to lock eyes with Cassaro, “Angelo, you seem to know an awful lot about the three of us and it sounds like you need a couple of supernatural troubleshooters. How about a retainer, rather than an audition?” Charlie spread his hands wide and tilted his head as he look smirked at Cassaro, “Looks like a seller’s market to me.”

Cassaro seemed to have managed the art of not getting sucked into soulgazes. He ratcheted up his glare while still managing to avoid direct eye contact with Charlie. “Mr. Harper, despite your delusions, you are not the only one with mystical power in this city. Why don’t we see how this commission goes before we tie ourselves into a long term relationship?” Charlie grinned as he slouched back in his chair and stuck his hands in his pockets. “If you need a bit more incentive, you’ll notice that section 2a offers each of you ‘special considerations’ upon a satisfactory completion of the contract. These are unique to each of you and I will be happy to discuss them privately with each of you. Perhaps we can do that now. Mr. Pearce, Mr. Ramsay, why don’t you help yourselves to some refreshments? Mr. Harper, perhaps you and I could speak over here?”

The office was more than large enough to provide at least the illusion of privacy. Hudson and David nodded and moved to pour themselves more coffee from a small buffet in one corner, while Cassaro came around from behind his desk and walked over to stand looking out the window on the far side of the room. Several moments passed before Charlie rolled his eyes and ambled over to stand next to him. Cassaro continued his study of the Houston skyline. Just as Charlie was losing patience and opened his mouth, Cassaro spoke softly.

“How long has it been since you’ve visited your grandfather’s grave, Charlie?”

Charlie might have been more surprised if Cassaro had Die Hard-ed him out the window, but not by much. His hand twitched toward the wrench hooked to his belt. He decided against overt expressions of anger, but he turned to glare at Cassaro, which had little visible effect. “None of your fuckin’ business, Angelo. Tell me what you got for me, and I’ll letcha know if I’m interested. Otherwise, I got shit to do.”

“More scams, Charlie? More pathetic wastes of your talent?” Cassaro turned to look at Charlie, who had no interest in staring contests with him this time. Cassaro’s voice softened slightly as he put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder. “Listen. Art was a friend of mine. I handled his estate. I can’t say I was thrilled when he left it all to you, but he wanted more for you than being a small time hustler.”

Charlie jerked himself away from Cassaro’s hand, but still refused to look up. “What the hell do you know about it?”

“I know magic should be about more than impressing goth girls and scamming the muggles. You’ve got real power Charlie, and I can offer you the opportunity to improve it. And hell, if I’m hiring you, you might actually be using it to do something your grandfather would be proud of. Do this for me, and I’ll see to it you get the chance to hone your talents instead of coasting on’em. What do you say?”

It was Charlie’s turn to stare out the window. Memories of his grandfather rolled through his mind. The old man had been the only one willing to spend any time with him when he was a kid. Early on, it had been typical grandpa, grandkid stuff. Baseball games, ice cream trucks, and presents his folks couldn’t afford. Grandpa had even taught Charlie to be a decent chess player. Then Charlie had manifested his talent while throwing a neighborhood bully halfway across the playground. Charlie’s grandfather had revealed that he had been a member of the White Council and took charge of Charlie’s training. Lazy summer days of baseball and board games became endless weeks of training and practice. Arthur had pushed Charlie hard, drilling him constantly and lecturing him endlessly about control. Charlie, however, had been far more interested in using his talents to score beer for his friends and show off for girls than in practicing. One night, Charlie, along with half a dozen friends (and two dogs), had been caught drunk in a state senator’s hot tub. They had not been invited. When the cops brought him home, his grandfather went ballistic. Charlie moved out the next day. A couple months later, Arthur died. They never spoke after Charlie left.

Charlie shook himself out of his reverie. He turned back to Cassaro, hand caressing the wrench at his side. “I’ll take the job Angelo. Just don’t go thinking we’re friends.” He stepped into Cassaro’s face, “You don’t follow through on the money or the power, and I’ll show you how much talent I’ve wasted. And don’t ever mention my grandfather again.” Charlie strode over to the buffet.

Cassaro turned from the windows and raised his voice, “Mr. Ramsay, may we speak a moment?” David grabbed his tea and walked over to stand by Cassaro.

“You seem to have caused Charlie a bit of consternation, Mr. Cassaro.”

Cassaro looked up at the tone in David’s voice, noting his frown. “You don’t approve?”

David shrugged, “He can be a trial at times, but his heart is in the right place. He is quite skilled as well. We would not have been able to rescue Diane without him. Seems a bit counterproductive to antagonize your…consultants. Now, shall we to business?”

Cassaro smiled, “Of course. You’re quite the impressive craftsman Mr. Ramsay. I’ve considered purchasing one of your creations, but rumor has it that there is a considerable waitlist.”

“Business has been good lately, Mr. Cassaro. I could do wonders with your lobby, if you need a designer. But, as you are no doubt aware, I am a businessman, not a mercenary. While the compensation you have offered for this job is certainly enticing, I’m not sure I want to take this particular commission.”

“Let’s not split hairs, Mr. Ramsay. Being a businessman is simply your hobby. You didn’t move here all the way from London because of the market for antiques. You’re searching for something, and I think I know what.”

David paused with his mug halfway to his lips. His eyes narrowed as he looked back up at Mr. Cassaro. “You are remarkably well-informed, Mr. Cassaro. It makes me just a touch suspicious.”

Cassaro chuckled, “I’m an attorney, Mr. Ramsay, and a supernatural one at that. Information is my business. Let’s see. You recently purchased a pair of trunks at an estate sale. Nothing unusual, particularly for a known dealer in antiques. However, these trunks contained a number of journals and diaries that once belonged to Thomas Pierce Converse, great grandson of Augustus Allen, founder of Houston.” Cassaro paused and looked expectantly at David.

David carefully set his cup of tea down on a table beside Cassaro’s desk. It was rare that he wished he had his pistol, but this was most definitely one of those times. This was Texas, however. Maybe he should get a concealed carry license. “Again, you are very well-informed Mr. Cassaro, but I find your interest in my private life somewhat disturbing. I assume you are coming to a point?”

David found Cassaro’s smile somehow predatory. He had to stop himself from stepping back as Cassaro closed the distance between them.

“Yes Mr. Ramsey, I am coming to a point. The journals you purchased detailed the sale and distribution of a number of antiques connected to the Allen estate. You also recently bought a shard of the Brutus, one of the first Texas Naval schooners. I think you’re trying to track down one or more of the artifacts that the Brutus and the Invincible plundered while raiding the Mexican coast during the war. And the law firm of Cassaro & Bellini would be happy to assist you in your search. Provided, of course, that you accept and complete this commission.”

David struggled to keep the lust for information off his face. Given the broadening of Cassaro’s smile, it seemed unlikely that he had succeeded. It mattered little, of course. If Cassaro put the resources of Houston’s preeminent supernatural law firm at David’s disposal, there really was no choice. Cassaro stuck his hand out to David, “Can I assume we have an agreement?”

David returned Cassaro’s grin as he shook the older man’s hand, “I look forward to a closer working relationship with your firm, Mr. Cassaro. Shall I tell Hudson it is his turn to be manipulated?”

Cassaro chuckled again, “If you wouldn’t mind.”

Hudson sauntered up shortly thereafter, eyes red over a cup of black coffee. As he passed Cassaro’s desk, he took a quick peek at the folder Cassaro had left on his desk. The label on the cover read Artic Tor Ltd. Hudson filed away the information. Maybe Charlie or David would know what it meant. He continued over to stand beside the attorney without breaking stride. “What have you got for me, Mr. Cassaro? David and Charlie certainly looked intrigued by what you had to say.”

“How do you like living at that hotel, Mr. Pearce?”

“Well, it’s full of chemo patients and sick kids, so, you know, every day’s a party. What’s it to you?”

“What’s keeping you there?”

“The thread count and room service. What the hell do you think? Hard to sign a lease when you’re lookin’ at ‘indefinite administrative leave’. Law enforcement doesn’t exactly help you build much of a reserve fund either. You gettin’ to a point soon?”

“Just this. Cassaro & Bellini has a lot of friends in law enforcement. We contribute to the annual policeman’s ball, provide legal consultation for the state, stuff like that. Might be we’ve got enough pull to get you back on the job. Barring that, law firms always have need of skilled investigators. Not many around with your experience.”

Hudson suddenly understood Charlie and David’s expressions after they spoke to Cassaro. It was hope, mingled with the fear of someone who knew so much about them. Cassaro had played puppet master with each of them, deftly tugging the strings to make them dance to his tune. Distressing, but also intriguing. “What you’re offering for this job’ll keep a roof over my head for quite some time. I’d certainly appreciate anything you could do after that.”

Cassaro clapped him on the shoulder, “We’ll do our best, Mr. Pearce. I promise you that. The people of Texas need men like you watching out for them.” Cassaro turned toward David and Charlie and raised his voice again, “Gentlemen, it’s been a pleasure. I thank you all for your time.” Cassaro grabbed a small folder off his desk and handed it to Hudson. “This contains all the information we have on the property. Good hunting.”
____________________________________________________________________________________________________

Hudson lamented that real investigations were never like in the movies. If this were Hollywood, stirring music would play while a few quick cuts of musty books and phone calls flashed across the screen. Pages would flip, maybe there would be a bit with him knocking on doors, and ninety seconds later the plot would advance. Instead, the three of them had spent the last two days calling contacts, knocking on doors, and digging through back issues of the The Chronicle, trying to learn what they could about this property in the Heights. Now the three of them sat around David’s kitchen trying to make sense of what they had discovered.

“Alright boys, where are we?” Hudson said.

David answered first, “Well, according to the public records, what we have here is a standard murder-suicide. Jerome Yates, the husband, murdered his wife and kids in the house on the property about five years ago. Apparently, the Yates murders were a pretty big story at the time. Before Hudson’s and my time though.” David shot a look at Charlie.

“Don’t look at me man. Five years ago I was chasing girls and trying to stay outta jail. Not my fault I didn’t remember.”

David rolled his eyes and continued, “House has been empty since then, no surprise. Motive seemed to have been religious. Apparently Jerome was the member of some local cult. On that note, were you able to procure any information from the supernatural community, Charlie?”

“Ass. Anyway, I checked with Diane and some of the other local supernatural folks about the property and the Yates.” Charlie glanced down at his notepad, “Apparently, the wife, Maggie, was a minor practitioner, spirit chick. Not real powerful or anything, but used to be a semi-regular at The Cauldron. Diane remembered her acting progressively weirder in the weeks running up to the murders.”

Hudson interrupted Charlie, “Diane remembers how an infrequent customer acted over a couple of weeks five years ago? Charlie, most folks can’t accurately describe a fender-bender they were just in, much less something like that.”

“Hey, I just report’em. But apparently, the local NBC affiliate did a little interview with Diane after they found out the victim was into ‘the occult.’ It seems that the resulting publicity was good for her business.”

Hudson nodded, “Fair enough, I’ll buy it. What about that cult the husband was in?

“Yeah, that’s were it gets a little weirder," Charlie paused. "_Weirder_ anyway. The cult is called the Shepherd’s Path and evidently they’re a pretty anti-supernatural cult. ‘Suffer not a witch to live’ kinda folks. The members have a tendency to get arrested for assault on members of the local occult community, but they seem to be a magnet for self-hating practitioners as well. Neither has endeared them to the supernatural folks around town. They’ve picketed Diane’s place a couple times too. Basically, Westboro Baptist but they hate on magic instead of gays. They’ve got a compound up north of town.”

“Yeah, I talked to some of the investigators who worked the Yates case,” Hudson said. “They found an altar and some ‘weird pagan shit’ in the house. Figured the husband found his wife’s stuff, maybe her teaching the kids, and lost his shit.” Hudson rubbed his chin, “One of the detectives, Sergeant Tillman, wasn’t entirely convinced though. There were some inconsistencies, timelines didn’t add up. He may have a point too. The kids were drowned, which doesn’t quite square with the rage murder theory.” Hudson found Charlie and David looking at him questioningly. “What? Drowning, especially with kids, is usually premeditated and associated with women. Especially ones with postpartum depression. The youngest Yates kid was less than three months old.”

“Man,” Charlie said, “You really do know your shit, don’t you?”

“Your confidence in my ability is staggering. Anyway, the motive was there, Jerome was an obvious suicide, so they closed the case. Tillman did mention that they got stonewalled by the Shepherd folks though.”

The kitchen was silent for several moments before David spoke up, “So, we have several violent murders, the apparently guilt-driven suicide of a supernaturally savvy cult member that hates magic users, the death of at least one spirit-using practitioner, and a property that has everyone running scared.” David looked at Charlie. Charlie sighed and nodded.

“It’s ghosts,” Charlie said.

“Definitely ghosts,” David replied.

“Fuck,” Hudson responded.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________

Hudson knocked back one of the beers that David had passed around. They all agreed it was appropriate, despite the early hour.

“So, ghosts huh? I’m beyond the reactionary disbelief stage, but I’m still in the dark. Anyone care to fill me in?” Hudson said.

“Not my area,” David tipped his bottle toward Charlie. “You are up mate.”

Charlie took a pull from his beer, “Listen, as far as I understand it, ghosts are basically imprints of people that have passed. Violent deaths, emotional deaths, stuff like that can leave behind an entity that’s essentially a sentient psychic fossil of the person that died. It feels what they felt, knows what they knew, wants to finish what the person left undone. I’m guessing that infanticide, suicide, and murder all tied up with an unstable kitchen witch is a pretty good recipe for ghosts." Charlie shuddered before taking another swig of beer. "Angry, angry ghosts.”

“And the stuff that Cassaro’s file reported – frightened workers, malfunctioning equipment – those are things that ghosts can do?”

“Yeah,” Charlie replied, “pretty standard stuff actually. Ghosts are usually locked to a particular location and can get touchy when other folks are there. Which sucks for us because we need to find someway to get rid of them or we don’t get paid. And I want to get paid. I’m not sure I want to get paid enough to walk into a house so haunted it scared off half a dozen construction crews and killed a few bulldozers, but I do want to get paid.”

“What’s the problem? Let’s kick down the door and raise some hell. Can’t you blast’em like you did McCullough?” Hudson asked.

Charlie waggled his hand back and forth. “Maybe, maybe not,” he replied. “Some ghosts manifest ectoplasmic bodies, some are pure spirit. For most ghosts it’s hard to even interact with’em unless you get their attention. Which can be difficult because dying has a tendency to make most normal stuff seem somehow uninteresting.” Charlie took another swallow of beer.

Hudson shook his head, “Didn’t understand a word of that.”

Charlie sighed, “Shit Hudson, this ain’t really my area either. Look, ghosts are basically immune to most magic that’s not specifically ectomancy. I could throw a bolt of air that would flip a car at a ghost and most wouldn’t even notice. Fire might work, but first, I’m not great with fire, and second, a lot of ghosts would ignore it anyway. David could fire his pistol at’em, and they wouldn’t even blink. You’re guns aren’t likely to be much good either. And, since world tends to be incredibly unfair, just because we can’t hurt them, doesn’t mean they can’t hurt us.” Charlie rubbed his forehead as he fell silent.

Hudson persisted, “Come on, there’s got to be something we can do. Shit guys, I’m a couple weeks from asking Javier for a place to crash.”

Charlie waved for David to take up the mantle of supernatural tutor. “Well, the real problem with ghosts is getting them to acknowledge you at all. The spirits inhabiting this property seem to be more than happy to acknowledge intruders, so that is less likely to be a problem for us. What Charlie is trying to say, however, is that once we have their attention, it will be difficult for us to affect them. The reports from Cassaro seem to indicate that they have not been particularly interested in communication thus far either.”

“So, once we have their attention, we could basically just stand there and get the shit scared out of us like everyone else?” Hudson asked.

“Correctamundo brother Hudson,” Charlie replied.

“Alright, blasting’em won’t work. What else we got?”

Charlie waved for David to continue. David sighed and turned back to Hudson, “Well, since Charlie’s evocations and my weapons are unlikely to affect the ghosts, we would need to use more complex magic, thaumaturgy. To put it simply, we need a channel to the spirit. Their True Name,” Hudson heard the capital letters fall into place, “some sort of very personal memento connected to the deceased. Something like that might allow us to forge a channel to the spirit. Well, Charlie might be able to. Ectomancy is a bit beyond my ken, I am afraid.”

“We could always check their caskets,” Charlie said.

“Charlie! We’ve discussed this,” David replied. “I will not abide grave robbing.”

“Don’t think of it as grave robbing. Think of it as acquiring spell components…for profit.”

“Grave robbing is not a get-rich-quick scheme, although I must admit it is better than some of your ideas,” David said. “Besides, who knows what condition any items would be in?”

“How will we know until we check?”

“What about the house?” Hudson interjected. “There might be personal items still in the house.”

“Yes, there could possibly be something in the house,” Charlie replied. “In the house, with the angry, physically immune ghosts.”

“Good point,” Hudson said. He walked to the fridge and pulled out another trio of beers. For a few minutes, the kitchen was silent except for the hiss of escaping CO2 and the quiet glug of emptying bottles. There had to be something they could do – apart from grave robbing – to find something they could use to forge a connection to whichever Yates family shades were haunting their former abode. Hudson might not understand all this magic stuff, but they were talking about connections. In the long run, that’s all investigating was, making connections. Investigators followed connections: payments, fingerprints, relationships, property. Follow the connections and eventually the pattern, the answer, would reveal itself. He might not be a wizard, but he was a damn good investigator.

Something tickled the back of his mind. They needed personal items of the deceased, something connected to them, something they cherished. Something they would keep with them, on their person.

The answer came in a rush of warming inspiration.

“The evidence lock-up,” Hudson said.

David and Charlie looked at each other and then back at Hudson, “Huh?”

“Good goddamn! This cryptic remark stuff is like crack," Hudson cackled. "The evidence lock-up, children. The murders weren’t that long ago, in bureaucratic time. HPD will have the evidence from the investigation saved and labeled in long-term storage. I know the guy that runs the place. Met him when I looked into the criminal background of some drug runners the Rangers had under observation. If we’re lucky, I can get him to let me look through what HPD bagged from their investigation. If we’re really lucky, I’ll find something from the deceased that y’all can use to do whatever the hell it is that you do.”

David and Charlie looked at each other again and nodded, “Hudson, that just might work,” David said. “When can you meet with him?”

“I’ll give him a call, see if he’ll meet me this afternoon. It’ll be off-the-record, but he’ll bend over backward to help a Ranger. Even a disgraced Ranger.”

Charlie had been uncharacteristically quiet during the exchange, peeling the label from his beer and frowning in concentration. “Hudson, how would you feel about making another stop this afternoon?”

“Well, if it’ll get us closer to solving this case, I’d be fine with it, but gas ain’t cheap man.”

“Hudson, you’re becoming downright mercenary. I love it. But I’m curious about this Shepherd cult. Even vicious murders don’t always, or even often, leave ghosts. I’m wondering if there’s more to their involvement in this.”

“What does that have to do with my plans for the afternoon?”

“They’re an anti-magic cult. They ain’t likely to open up to me or David.”

“So you want me to lift evidence from the local police and saunter up to mystical cult compound? What the hell are you guys planning on doing?”

David smiled at Hudson, " Anti mystical cult. And Charlie and I are going on a little field trip.”

Charlie’s raised his eyebrows, “We are?”

“We have spoken to every contact, read every book, knocked on every door. What is the only thing we have not done yet, Charlie?”

Hudson was the one who answered, grinning, “Put boots on the ground. I’ll make my stops and meet you guys there.”

Charlie sighed as he drained the rest of his beer, “At least try and get there before dark.”

View
Cauldron Bubble: Session 3
The Opening Boon

David sighed as they pulled into his driveway. At least they had not ended up back at his workshop. Of course, they were not exactly burdened with an over abundance of options. Hudson lived in a hotel, Javier was homeless, and no one really wanted to spend any time at Charlie’s place, even if he had been offering. By process of elimination, the Preternatural Justice League of Houston had been forced to convene at the domicile of one David Ramsay.

His house lay well off the street, surrounded by trees and set back from the other houses. Small but well maintained, the paint was crisp and new, the lawn neatly trimmed, and it lacked any exterior steampunk embellishments. Low profile, that was David’s watchword. Any investigation of the backyard might raise awkward questions – the dryad had been stubborn about removing the burned stump – but otherwise any mundane resident of Houston could wander by and see nothing unusual.

David led the crew up the porch and into his house. He held open the door for his three guests who immediately found their own places to collapse. Charlie sprawled onto his couch, Hudson fell into an overstuffed armchair set by the window, and Javier lowered himself gently onto one of David’s dining room chairs. They looked like a worn and tired lot. David glanced down the hallway to his bedroom wishing he could fall into his own bed and sleep for a couple of weeks. He would settle for a moment of gibbering madness if he could get it. But, in the words of that most eminent of Britons, you must keep calm and carry on.

“Gentlemen, if you’ll remember, a friend of ours – a citizen of Houston and the State of Texas – has been kidnapped by an evil sorcerer. We need to muster our contacts, our intelligence, and find out where this Eric McCullough has gone to ground. Time is of the essence.” His companions’ responses ranged from glares, to confusion, to a disheartened sigh, but none were particularly encouraging.

Hudson was the first to rouse himself, however. "Of course, you’re right David. I’ve got a phone and computer in my cruiser, assuming it’s still working. My contacts in the Rangers and the local police ought to know something. This psycho’s sprung a gear. He’ll have left a path of criminality that’ll lead us to wherever he’s headed.” Hudson nodded to the group and headed out the door.

David glanced at Charlie, pointedly. Charlie sighed and heaved himself off the couch. “You got a phone?” David pointed toward to the kitchen. “This psycho – " Charlie mimicked Hudon’s deep baritone, “is a criminal. And criminals gotta deal with other criminals. I’ll see who Eric’s been crossing paths with lately. One of’em will have seen him.” Charlie turned and walked back toward the kitchen and the ancient rotary style phone mounted to the wall.

David glanced at Javier. The exhausted young man looked up at David with wide, hopeful eyes. David sighed and clapped him on the shoulder. “Si, mi amigo. Vamos a encontrar que una ducha.”
________________________________________________________________________________________________

An hour later, David very carefully did not hurl the rare and expensive tome on his desk against the bloody wall. Within this library, he had collected dozens of works on early Houston and the city’s supernatural development. David had blueprints of the Scanlan Building, the original plans for the Rice Institute, and even maps of the ley lines that wound through the region. And those were just a few of the rare items he had managed to acquire over the years. As far as he knew, the most extensive and complete library on the occult history of Houston was housed within this room, and it seemed to be completely useless. He had been confident that his library would contain information on the entrance and layout of the tunnel system. Instead, all his digging had barely uncovered mention of the tunnels, much less their entrance.

David turned in his chair as he heard someone tap hesitantly on the door. Javier peaked his head through a crack in the door. “Usted, puede pedir prestado algo de ropa?” David sighed again, rubbing his temples with his fingers. If he could not crack the case, at least he could clothe their wayward mascot. David hauled himself from his chair and directed Javier to a box he kept in his hallway closet for the Salvation Army.

As he left Javier to dress, David walked back to the living room to see what the others had found. He found Hudson and Charlie deep in conversation at his dining table. They looked up as he entered.

Charlie spoke first. “David, we think we have someone that can tell us how to find Eric.”

David breathed a sigh of relief. “Excellent work, gentlemen. Who?”

Charlie looked at Hudson. Hudson folded his arms and suddenly found something dreadfully interesting out David’s window. Charlie rolled his eyes as he turned back to David.

“The contact is, allegedly,” Charlie directed this at Hudson, “a drug dealer, and a pretty nasty one by all accounts. His name is Lizard Gibbs.”

David raised his eyebrows. “Lizard?”

“Don’t mock it. The guy is supposed to be cold. Runs most of the drugs on the east and north sides of town. Rumor of the day is he got in an altercation with somebody down near the Bayou today. One of the pickpockets downtown said that some of Lizard’s men turned on him during the fight, started attacking their friends.” Charlie stopped and looked pointedly at David.

“Just like one might expect when fighting a psychomancer,” David mused. “Now, what’s the bad news?”

Hudson turned back to the conversation. “The bad news is that Gibbs is one of the worst drug runners in the state. The local gang task force is convinced that he’s been stockpiling weapons. Heavy weapons. Probably to use against the cartels. Oh, and right now half of HPD is swarming around the scene of that ‘altercation’. Gibbs is a violent predator, a fucking murder by all accounts, and you want us to go ask him for help?!” Hudson’s voice continued to rise during his speech. By the end, he had left his chair and was leaning heavily on the table, practically shouting down at Charlie.

Charlie rose out of his chair and put his face about three inches from Hudson’s, “You got a better idea Ranger boy? Gibbs is a problem for tomorrow. McCullough is our problem today! And Gibbs is the last one to have seen that psycho before he went to ground. You got any better ideas, I’m all fucking ears.”

“He’s a criminal Charlie! A vicious killer with an arsenal that would make Kaddafi jealous! I should be arresting the son-of-a-bitch, not asking him for help! How do you know – ”

“Gentlemen, please!” David interjected. He placed his hand on Hudson’s shoulder, “I know it’s distasteful Hudson, but Charlie may be right. Do we have any other leads?” Hudson found a sudden interest in David’s tabletop and shook his head. “And both your contacts indicated that this Lizard squabbled with our quarry this afternoon?” Both Charlie and Hudson nodded, one emphatically, one grudgingly. “Alright, then our goal is to get him to tell us where to find the entrance to Eric’s hideout. What do we know about this man? How is he likely to react? Charlie?”

“He’ll be hard to intimidate. He’s got guns, thugs, and a nasty rep. But he got beat today, run off his territory. If we give him a reason to think we can take down Eric, he might give us what we need.”

“Or he might be offended we think we can do better than him and shoot us on sight,” Hudson offered.

David rose from his chair. “Nevertheless, he’s our best shot at finding Diane. Charlie, do you have an idea where to find this Lizard? An address?” Charlie nodded, and suddenly his mouth dropped open. Hudson’s eyes widened as well as they both looked over David’s shoulder. David turned and found himself staring at a tall young Latino man with damp hair that hung down to his shoulders. He was dressed in gray sweats and a blue shirt, and stood in David’s hallway, white teeth flashing in a grin.

David recovered more quickly than his companions, “Javier, se le ve mucho major. Y, lo siento, pero huele mejor también, mi amigo. Hemos encontrado la manera de encontrar a la mujer. ¿Quieres venir con nosotros?”

Javier’s smile deepened. “Si, mi amigo. Y Carlos, insectos van a volar en tu boca.”

David laughed and even the corners of Hudson’s mouth twitched a little. “Alright gentlemen, let’s go find this Mr. Lizard. Charlie, would you say this man is impressed by material goods?”

Charlie shrugged, mouth now closed. “I guess so.”

“Good enough. We’ll take my car.”
________________________________________________________________________________________________

About half an hour later David parked his Jaguar Mark VII in front of an abandoned garage just north of the 610 Loop. Four doors of sleek, post-war British manufacturing and over sixty years old, the car gleamed in the afternoon sun. On the other hand, the building – not to mention the lots and neighborhood around it – had seen better days. Probably nothing but better days. By previous agreement, David and Charlie stepped out of the car. Hudson had flatly refused to talk to the drug dealer, and none of the rest sought to dissuade him. The situation was going to be volatile enough without throwing Lizard and the Ranger into the same room. On impulse, David turned and tossed the keys to Javier.

“Mantener el motor en marcha, por favor.”

David and Charlie strode toward the door to the garage. The windows were blacked out, but a faint sliver of light could be seen around the door. As they approached, the door swung back silently in invitation. David saw Charlie spinning his wrench in his right hand. He put his hand on Charlie’s shoulder.

“Calmly my friend. Let’s not startle them.” Charlie shrugged but slid the wrench back into his pocket. Side by side, they walked through the door.

The garage was dark, even in the afternoon sun. Two figures scuttled around the back of the garage, but they were shrouded in shadow. It was the two men standing about ten feet into the building, obviously waiting for David and Charlie that drew their attention. As they walked into the building, the one on the left spoke.

“That’s far enough boys. We’re doing crime in the back, wouldn’t want your poor eyes to see such things. What do you want? And make it quick,” the man glanced back over his shoulder, “I’ve got plans this evening.”

As Charlie’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, the men in front of him became clearer. One stood a couple of steps to the back of the leader. He was dressed in black fatigues and held a very large gun like the ones Rambo’s faceless enemies tended to carry before they got mowed down. But his eyes were drawn to the man who had spoken. Taller than average, his skin seemed to fade into the shadowy light. Everything except for flat hard eyes and a Cheshire cat grin. He leaned on a heavy machine gun as well and a smaller one was strapped to his belt.

“Are you Lizard Gibbs?” Charlie asked.

“I might be. Depends on how you found me and what you want.”

“You had a run-in with a man today, Eric McCullough. He took a friend of ours. We want her back. You can tell us where she is,” Charlie drew his wrench out once again and started twirling it in his fingers. Light began to shine from the metal, illuminating the garage and driving the shadows from the corners of the building. Charlie let the spell bleed over a little and arcs of electricity started to shoot out from between his fingers. His grin looked more than a little demonic in the eerie light. “One way or the other.”

David thought the response could have been worse. Lizard’s thugs could have actually opened fire. Lizard’s lieutenant jerked his assault rifle to his shoulder. The two thugs from the back of the room scrambled up behind their boss and flicked the safeties off their machine pistols. The light from Charlie’s wrench was suddenly reflected off multiple gun barrels pointed at their heads. Only Lizard himself stood unmoving, still leaning on his heavy assault rifle, although David imagined he could see a slight tremor in his right hand where a smaller machine gun had appeared. David very carefully remained completely still.

Then Lizard laughed, “Cute trick Harper, but we’ve seen better today.” He turned to his men. “Stand down boys, I’ll handle this. DeShawn,” Lizard turned to the man who had stood behind him when David and Charlie entered, “check on Tyronne. You two,” he pointed to the men with the machine pistols, “back to our other guests.” He turned back to David and Charlie, “Now, where were we? Oh yeah, you were trying to intimidate me.”

David thought it an appropriate time to take over negotiations. “Mr. Gibbs. I apologize for my associate’s rather…aggressive attempt at diplomacy. Perhaps an economic inducement would be more to your liking?”

Lizard grinned again. “I don’t want your money peckerwood. You just haven’t convinced me I should give up McCullough to you.”

Charlie still gripped his now de-illuminated wrench tightly in his hand. “Why not? Heard you lost a few men. Thought you’d be achin’ for a little payback.”

Lizard’s eyes flashed in the gloom, but his voice was as smooth as ever, “Could be I’m looking out for you. Could be I’ve decided to be the bigger man. Could be I’m not sure you can take him and I’m not hankerin’ for a rematch if he finds out I gave him up. You were stupid enough to walk in here after all.”

Charlie’s wrench flashed again, “Don’t mistake ignorance for weakness Gibbs. We’re taking this guy down.”

Lizard’s laugh took on a mocking tone, “Saw Copperfield disappear the Statue of Liberty when I was a kid.” He took a step closer to Charlie, “And today I saw someone throw around real power.” Lizard grabbed Charlie’s collar and pointed to the corner where he had sent his lieutenant. Sitting on the floor in the corner slumped a large black man whose face was covered in bruises. Bald with arms that strained the seams of his Rockets t-shirt, drool dripped gently from his half-open mouth and his eyes saw nothing under his half-closed lids. Nevertheless, his hands were chained to the wall behind him.

Lizard dragged Charlie’s ear to his mouth and whispered to him, “I’ve known Tyronne since before we started pissin’ standing up. Today he pointed a gun at me and pulled the trigger. I wouldn’t be standing here if another of my crew hadn’t hit him low. Tyronne broke his neck. We had to knock him out to stop him and when we dragged him back here, he was like this.” Lizard turned to stare directly into Charlie’s eyes, “So tell me again, why should I throw my lot in with y’all?” Lizard shoved Charlie away from him and turned to David. “So, it ain’t a question of money Brit. I’d rather have half of something than all of nothin’ and I don’t relish the idea of waking up one morning looking like that.” He pointed at the figure slumped against the wall. Lizard seemed to deflate as he looked at Tyronne. His arm fell to his side and he cradled his head in his hands.

“Well, a decent threshold – ”

“Shut-up Charlie,” David turned to face the drug dealer. “Mr. Gibbs, both us and our compatriots have some…experience with these matters. I promise you, we can neutralize this sorcerer.” David moved closer to Lizard, “We can get justice for your friend. For Tyronne.”

Lizard lifted his head and stared into David’s eyes for a full minute before finally glancing back at his lieutenant, who was dabbing the spittle from Tyronne’s face. He nodded back at his boss. Lizard spoke, “DeShawn here can take you to the hole that little rat crawled into. But there’s one more thing.” Lizard stepped directly into David’s face, “I don’t want him neutralized. I want him dead.”

David and Lizard locked eyes again. Within those depths, David saw a man struggling to maintain a lock on his rage, to keep from leading his men again into another hopeless confrontation. But that rage, the desire for revenge, was still there. It had to be quenched. David looked at Charlie, who shrugged. David nodded.

“Good, then bring me back a trophy. I don’t want you and your tame Ranger – ” David and Charlie both started, “Yeah, I knew about him boys. Y’all aren’t the only ones with contacts. I just want to make sure y’all don’t turn all lawful when the time comes. Might be that you and that lawman can take down that bukra son-of-a-bitch, but I want to make sure he doesn’t get up when you do. I want him dead.”

“My word on it,” David replied.

Less than a minute later David, Charlie, and one drug dealer named DeShawn walked across the garage parking lot. To his credit, Lizard’s associate’s steps barely faltered when he saw their car.

“Nice ride,” he said.

“I got a good deal,” David replied.

Hudson stuck his head out the window as they approached, “Did the asshole give it up?”

DeSahwn bristled. “Mr. Gibbs was most forthcoming,” David said, attempting to forestall any confrontation. Hudson apparently had no such desire. He gave their guide a quick but thorough once over.

“You got a permit for that piece, son.”

DeShawn’s hand twitched toward the pistol poorly concealed under his fatigues. “I got your permit right – ”

“Gentlemen! I tire of playing peacemaker! Charlie, please get in – ”

Charlie poked his head out of the window, “Already there. Let’s go David, time’s a wastin’!”

David shivered as if something had walked across his grave. Javier tossed him the keys as he got in the car. DeShawn gave him the address as David pulled into the street. David grimaced as Charlie spoke up from the backseat. “So, Whataburger?”
_______________________________________________________________________________________________

A short time later, Charlie found a new appreciation for the plight of Bilbo Baggins as he crept down a corridor toward the cave where Diane was being held. DeShawn had guided them easily to where McCullough had entered the tunnels under Houston’s downtown. The entrance had been a maintenance door behind one of the civic buildings and shockingly free of vagrants. As they opened the door, DeShawn had turned and walked back down the alley, wishing them luck without a great deal of conviction. From there, following McCullough’s trail had been surprisingly easy. The tunnels had steadily become more filled with mud beyond the pipes and Javier’s senses had allowed them to follow the sorcerer’s trail with relative ease.

After about fifteen minutes of following the trail, David, Hudson, Javier, and Charlie had found the cave where McCullough was holding Diane. The sorcerer had been making little effort to hide. There was a bonfire in the middle of the cavern, which cast light far up the tunnels. The flames made shadows dance along the walls as well, particularly since two ghouls sat near the fire, fighting over some thankfully unidentifiable bones and making enough noise to be heard far up the corridor as well. Diane had been staked to the ground near the back of the cavern, surrounded by an empowered circle. Similar to the circle back at McCullough’s house, the motif had been heavy on skulls and demonic figures. This time, however, the circle’s creator had been there, crouching beside his handiwork, tweaking the placement of the focus items while Diane struggled against her bonds, attempting to scream around a gag.

Charlie had crept back to the group to report on the cavern’s layout and joined them on planning the attack. Their resulting plan had been simple. Hit’em hard, hit’em fast. Charlie had been in full support of the concept until they included an addendum. In Hudson’s words, Charlie was to ‘make like a hobbit.’ He was to sneak back down the corridor, slip past the ghouls, and position himself to hit the sorcerer from behind. David had promised a ‘significant distraction,’ but Charlie had felt somehow less than comforted as he veiled himself and went once more into the breach.

Charlie’s view was distorted behind the veil, but he could still see the ghouls’ noses sniffing and their scarred ears twitching as they gnawed their bones in the firelight. He made a mental note to take smell and hearing into account next time he updated the spell’s formula. An endless dozen steps took him past the ghouls and took only four or five years off his life. The ghouls turned back to their snack as Charlie thought silent thoughts and stole around the edge of the firelight, aiming for where McCullough was laying the finishing touches on his ritual circle. The evening had been waning when they found the tunnel entrance and obviously the time for McCullough’s spell was fast approaching. Charlie crept forward until he was crouched next to the cavern wall, about fifteen feet behind McCullough, wrench in hand, waiting for David’s ‘distraction.’

When it came, Charlie made another mental note to apologize to the smug little twit. As he held his aim at the sorcerer’s back, ticking off the seconds until McCullough would finish his spell, David’s pocket watch came sliding across the floor. It slid past the ghouls and skidded to a stop inches from McCullough’s foot. The top popped open with a faint click as sphere of dense, multi-colored steam exploded out from the watch. Red, blue, yellow. Primary colors, secondary colors. Colors even Crayola™ did not sell shot out into the cavern, twisted together in a dense smoke. Light shattered and refracted off the fog, dazing and blinding everyone who looked at it. McCullough had started chanting softly while Charlie waited and turned when he heard the click, catching the blast of light full in the face. He stumbled up from his knees, clutching at his face, screaming a string of viscous curses. Charlie’s spell was already on his lips as he rose from his crouch at the edge of the fog, dropped his veil, and leveled his wrench at the sorcerer’s back.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________

David followed the rest of the group as they charged out of the tunnel. Javier out distanced the other two easily, sprinting to the edge of the David’s shroud of steam, swinging at one of the dazed ghouls. The ghoul – not a species well suited to rapid changes of circumstance – was so confused by the turn of events that it simply gapped as the young man charged forward. Unfortunately, while faster than his compatriots, Javier was less skilled. His swing went wide, missing the ghoul and almost landing him in the fire.

Hudson, however, had been trained by the best Texas law enforcement had to offer. He used the ghouls’ confusion to slip around the side of the cavern. Hudson drew his shotgun from beneath his coat as he came into position, leveling the double barrel at the ghouls. The shotgun roared twice as Hudson pumped a shell into each of them. Javier’s target was thrown to the ground as it slashed at the off balance young man, his claws only lightly gouging his arm. The second ghoul took advantage of Hudson’s covering of Javier to charge, but the lawman swung the shotgun coolly back to the right, pulling the trigger just as the ghoul’s claws shredded the Ranger’s jacket. The ghoul flew back toward the flames, its attack having little effect on the Ranger. Hudson’s hat did land perilously close to the bonfire, however.

“Good show, constable!” David shouted as he heard a loud whump. As he turned toward the sound, Eric McCullough came flying out of the multicolored fog. Robes fluttering and dreads trailing behind him, the sorcerer crashed into one of the ghouls, losing his feet and rolling directly into the bonfire. David’s pistol flew into his hand without conscious thought, tracking the now burning sorcerer. As his finger squeezed the trigger, a gust of air caught him in the chest, staggering him. His shot went wide, but he was treated to a fantastic view of the flames beginning to run up the sorcerer’s dreadlocks. McCullough screamed as he rolled on the cavern floor. David re-cocked his pistol.

To David’s right, the ghoul that had attacked Hudson was still off-balance after being gut-shot and hit by a flying sorcerer. Hudson stepped forward, swinging the butt of the shotgun into the ghoul’s jaw. Teeth like a dog’s canines flew through the air as the ghoul’s jaw shattered. It swiped back feebly at Hudson, but the Ranger blocked the monster’s claws with his shotgun while his boot lashed out and caught it in the gut, throwing the ghoul back across the cavern floor. As Hudson strode forward he let his still smoking shotgun fall to the floor. The ghoul barely had time to whimper as the Ranger drew his revolver and double tapped its skull.

David returned his attention to the fallen sorcerer. Before he could emulate the Ranger’s excellent example, Charlie strode out of the fading steam. Wrench in hand, Charlie spat a word and unseen force caught the sorcerer – still on fire – and slammed him against the far wall of the cavern. McCullough collapsed to the ground as Charlie caught David’s eye. Side by side, they looked down at the fallen warlock.

“Did you find Diane?”

“She’s in the back. You got this?”

David nodded as Charlie spat toward the sorcerer and faded back into the steam, presumably to tend to the wretch’s victim. McCullough struggled to rise as David advanced on him, finally dragging himself into a sitting position against the cavern wall. As David raised his pistol, the pair’s eyes met and a moment of almost perfect understanding passed between them. “It’s nothing personal old chap, but I’ve got promises to keep.” David’s shot took McCullough in the gut, slamming him to the wall again.

David had turned away and holstered his pistol before he realized his shot had not stopped the sorcerer. Over the coughing of blood, David heard the warlock snarl something and suddenly he felt knives gouging into his skull. Daggers of ice ripped through his brain and David’s vision began to narrow. He lost his balance and his pistol as he spun back around, collapsing to his hands and knees as the pressure continued to mount on his skull. Hope surged as he saw Javier charge to his defense from the edge of his vision. Javier stooped, grabbed a branch from the bonfire, tripped and then crashed headlong into the surviving ghoul as it fled from the cavern. My savior, David thought.

As the last of David’s vision began to fade, boot heels scuffed the floor of the cavern as Hudson placed himself between David and the sorcerer. David’s mind suddenly cleared as the Ranger’s shadow fell across the fallen warlock. As McCullough opened his mouth to cast another spell, Hudson’s boot lashed into his gut, driving the breath from his body and the spell from his mind. When he drew it back, Hudson’s heel was covered in blood and the sorcerer lay sprawled on the ground, to weak even to scream, blood and worse flowing freely from his wound.
________________________________________________________________________________________________

The smell was horrendous as Hudson stood over McCullough. Blood and bodily fluids mingled with scorched hair and vomit, not to mention the indescribable smells coming from the dead ghoul. McCullough was sobbing as he retched onto the ground, face smudged with soot and mud, seemingly oblivious to the Ranger towering above him.

He did not look like a dangerous man. If this were a normal manhunt, Hudson would be following Ranger protocol, kneeling beside the perp, administering first aid and calling for a bus. Instead, Hudson’s pistol floated up almost of its own accord as he stood there. His hand was rock steady as he trained the revolver’s sites on McCullough’s forehead.

There were a hundred reasons to shoot the man lying before him. The cops would not be able to hold him. The justice system could not hold him accountable. Not to mention that he deserved it, a dozen times over at least. The darker reaches of Hudson’s mind whispered other reasons. It was the heat of battle; deadly force was authorized. No one would know. He was scum anyway. Why shouldn’t he die here in the dirt? The revolver remained steady on its target. No one would know.

Even on the practical side, if Hudson gave McCullough a few moments to collect himself he might be able to cast what Charlie called a ‘death curse.’ All good reasons to shoot, but none of them was what drove Hudson to raise the revolver and cock the hammer back. It was the fear he saw in the sorcerer’s eyes as he looked up at the Ranger. The mind-raping little shit had power that Hudson had thought existed only in fairy tales a month ago – hell, this morning. But when McCullough looked up at Hudson and his revolver, his face held nothing but naked terror. He feared the gun and the man who wielded it. And Hudson would need that fear if he wanted to walk among these monsters and madmen. If he wanted to continue to protect his people from them, the monsters would have to fear him. Fear what he would do. Fear his retribution. Hudson would have to nurture that fear, cultivate it. He would have to grow his reputation until no one dared fuck with his beat. If he wanted fear like that, mercy would be a mistake.

The hammer fell and the gun roared again. More fluids flowed onto the cavern floor and more smells joined the reek. As Hudson turned away he saw the second ghoul pause as it fled the cavern. He did not need to be an expert on the supernatural to understand the terror in its eyes when it saw the smoking gun and the ruined body of its former master. Hudson gave the monster a mocking little salute with his revolver before he holstered it and turned away. He’d hunt down that asshole too, eventually, but not today. Today, word needed to spread.
________________________________________________________________________________________________

Hudson helped David to his feet and together they collected Javier from where he had fallen. He was shaken up, but more from his numerous pratfalls than from any of the ghouls’ attacks. They found Charlie smashing through the sorcerer’s circle, his wrench destroying the items that had held Diane captive. David laid a hand on his shoulder and the wrath seemed to fade from him. Hudson walked across the circle, caring little what horrific items his boots crushed. He bent down to gather up the semi-comatose Diane, wrapping her in his trench coat.

As he rose, applause began echoing around the cavern. The slow, mocking claps preceded the arrival of a pale man in a blue suit from a shadowed recess across from the tunnel they had used to enter. Tall, with dark hair, and a confident gait, he strode boldly through the mud and fluids that covered the cavern floor. He paused approximately ten yards from the companions, hands hanging loosely at his sides.

“Ummm, that was delicious. Such hatred, such anger. What a wonderful confrontation! I must commend you all. I must admit, I really thought it fairly long odds that you would manage to defeat Mr. McCullough. And so handedly as well. My congratulations gentlemen!”

Hudson and David looked at each other. Both shrugged and turned to look at Charlie. Charlie shrugged and rolled his eyes as he turned toward the figure. It wasn’t like he knew every questionable figure in town.

Charlie drew his wrench again as he stepped forward toward the man. When in doubt, nothing like a frontal assault. “And who the hell might you be?”

“Just another fellow traveler, Mr. Harper, and one who commends your prowess. Now, if you would all be so kind as to depart, I have some cleaning up to do. Ghouls leave such an abominable odor, even when they’re not dead.” The man bowed and gestured toward the tunnel they had used to enter.

Charlie felt his anger growing again. He had just taken down a full-fledged warlock – with some assistance and a sucker punch admittedly – but nonetheless, he had spent his entire day chasing around the city fighting thralls, guardian spirits, and crazy sorcerers. He would be goddamned if he was going to blithely follow the orders of a self-satisfied jackass in a thousand-dollar suit. “If you want us to leave, why don’t you step the hell out of our way, whoever the fuck you are?”

The figure blurred forward and Charlie was flung against the side of the cavern ten feet away with no discernible change in trajectory. He crumpled to the ground, coughing and retching. The figure stood where Charlie had previously been, not a hair out of place or a wrinkle in his suit. His face, on the other hand, was twisted into a snarl.

“I am Darian Rasna, mageling, and you will keep a civil tongue in your head or I will rip it out. Now take the wench and get out.”

Hudson looked at David and made no effort to lower his voice. “Discretion is often the better part of valor. Plus, I’d have to drop Diane and reload before I could shoot the asshole.” Hudson paused, “Not that I’m ruling it out as an option mind you.”

David took a moment to stroke his chin before responding. “True enough, constable. Our work here is done. Perhaps we should leave Mr. Rasna to his cleaning. Charlie?”

Charlie had managed to haul himself upright to lean against the cavern wall. “If we hurry, we might be able to make happy hour at Khon’s place. Hell, I’ll buy the first round.” Charlie walked steadily, if slowly, to stand with his companions. David put a hand on his friend’s shoulder and turned to face Rasna. He reached into his pocket and tossed a business card at Rasna’s feet.

“Wish I could say it has been a pleasure Mr. Rasna, but do feel free to give us a call if you have any further vermin you’d prefer not to handle yourself. If you ask nicely, I might even offer you a discount. Cheers mate.” David guided Charlie toward the exit tunnel and Hudson followed him, still carrying Diane. David felt Javier gliding along in his wake. As he passed the sorcerer’s body, he stooped quickly to grab the pocketwatch still dangling from the dead man’s fingers.

David’s shoulder blades itched as the companions strode toward the cavern exit. Rasna did not seem like one to take kindly to mockery, but sometimes you had to show your back to a predator to convince them you were not prey. As they rounded the corner to the tunnel leading to the surface, David breathed a silent sigh of relief. The monster had been slain and the damsel rescued. And all four of the companions were walking away as well. Anything else was a consideration for another day.

View
David Ramsay: Flashback
Ego Sum Temporis Rectorem

David sat idly on his back porch and tried to enjoy his tea. It should have been easy. The last sunlight of the evening filtered through the live oaks that the previous homeowner had planted around the edges of the property. He had heard Texans refer to the temperature as ‘football weather.’ Back in London he would have called it ‘summer.’ The tea was a special blend he had developed with Diane over at the Cauldron. Black tea with lavender, flavored with oil extracted from exotic citrus and lemon fruits grown in a shaded glen in the NeverNever that Diane rented from one of the more entrepreneurial Sidhe. Diane was thinking of naming it Piccard’s Magic Root.

In short, David should have been having a wonderful evening. Instead, his tea sat cool and half-forgotten on a small table beside him. His chin rested in his hand while his eyes stayed locked on a large table in his backyard. Most Houston homes had lawn furniture. Tacky plastic tables and fold-up chairs, occasionally accented with – David shuttered – yard art. David’s table was something different, however. A bronze top, over ten feet across, its edges molded to resemble a huge gear, sat nestled within the limbs of a tree growing directly in the center of David’s back yard. The base was not carved or dead wood either. Shimmering silvery leaves grew from the limbs that held the bronze top, rustling softly in the breeze, and the roots anchored the table to the earth.

David was always bemused that people rarely asked how he managed such a feat, shaping a living plant around a massive bronze table. When someone did, he usually mumbled something about bonsai trees. That seemed to satisfy most people. He often wondered if the dryad he had commissioned it from took offense at that. The Winter fae could get testy.

Instead, most people asked about the shape, an elongated oval flattened at the top and bottom. Obviously, any actual gear shaped like that would be useless. David usually just told then it was an aesthetic choice and left it at that. Nobody would believe him if he admitted it was a Robinson projection anyway, or that table was more than simple yard decoration. It was a ritual item. The proper application of blood and will would reveal the magical etching on the table top, turning it into a giant world map.

David was actually proud of the effort that had gone into constructing the table. He had a similar one at his shop, aesthetically beautiful but thaumaturgically flawed. The table here had taken years to design, shape, and mold. He had woven the rarest of materials into the bronze, spent months etching the outline of a map into its surface. Finding the dryad and connecting the table to the soil had been the final key. That connection allowed David to cast his magic through the table and into the Earth. Admittedly very cool, but a little too much of a Lex Luthor vibe for David to brag about it much.

This evening, the table did not serve as a testament to David’s skill. Tonight, it was a haunting opportunity because, resting on his lap, sat an aged and weathered yard of wood. To the unaided eye, there was nothing special about it, other than how grey it was with age. The wood had a story however. Almost two centuries ago, it had been part of the Brutus, a schooner of the original Texas Navy. In 1837, the Brutus and its sister ship Invincible had terrorized the Mexican coast from Matamoros to the Yucatan, taking prizes and capturing ships. One of the ships its crew had captured was The Eliza Russell, a British merchant sloop.

Joseph Russell, commander of Eliza, had loaded many artifacts into his ship’s hold when he left London. Several of those items had not, technically, belonged to him. One particular artifact had been taken from Westminster Abbey and the stewardship of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers. David had dedicated his life to tracking down the artifact and returning it to its proper place. Tonight, he might finally have the means to do so. His whole life in Houston had been leading to this moment and yet, he hesitated. His last attempt to locate the artifact had cost him dearly. A coma, banishment from the Worshipful Company, and exile in this festering swamphole. Tonight could rectify all that. Or kill him. Almost a toss up.

David finally pushed himself up from his chair. Night had fallen and he seemed to fade into the night as he walked down the stairs to his yard. A tall man, thin and still young enough looking to get carded, he was dressed entirely in black silk. His standard gold tie – it matched his hair – was missing tonight. In fact, all of his accessories – his pistol, his vest, everything except his pocketwatch – had been left behind. Powerful tools, but they could not help him tonight and might even interfere with the delicate workings he had prepared.

Because tonight, David intended to look back through the mists of time. Apart from dancing along the edges of at least two Laws of Magic, the spell itself was dangerous, delicate. Things lived in the places between time. Dark things. The things that gave Lovecraft nightmares. David had developed the spell through trial and error, and some of those trials had instilled in him a healthy respect, a healthy fear, of what he was about to attempt.

David paused as he stood in front of the table. Despite all his effort, he could think of no other option to find out what he needed to know. His contacts had gone silent. His investigations had yielded hints, but nothing more. He had tracked the artifact as far as he could without taking this risk. Or he could forget his…his obsession he supposed. Forget the artifact, forget the quest. Go brew another cup of Diane’s tea, enjoy the evening, and turn his whole attention to running his business.

David drew the ritual dagger from his belt – an artifact with a story all its own – and slid it quickly across his left palm. Blood welled up as he ran the fingers of his right hand through it and rubbed them around the edge of table. Light like liquid gold raced from where his blood touched the table. The outline of the continents sprang to life as David’s blood, his offering, woke the bronze table. David wiped his left hand on the branches that held the table and struggled to keep his feet as the earth shuddered in response.

Thaumaturgy, ritual magic, was all about connections. David had connected himself to the table through his blood. The table, in essence the world writ small, was connected to the earth through the roots of a living tree, awakened by more of David’s blood. David wiped his palm along the wreckage of the Brutus, painting it with the last of the blood that seeped from his wound. Hopefully, it would serve as a connection to the memory of the Brutus herself, allowing David to locate the residue of the ship’s last days.

As David placed the shard atop the Gulf of Mexico, along the Texas coast, the table produced a low tone. Felt more than heard, the menacing note turned David’s stomach and scraped along his spine, like a minor chord on the low end of a piano. He clenched his teeth as he drew out the last component of the spell, his pocket watch. Polished gold on a long chain with a flip-open cover, much like a normal pocket watch, David’s had a few…modifications. Most pocket watches had a single clockface. David’s had four – year, month, date, and time – and a rim transcribed by with a series of futhorc runes. Not exactly standard.

David flipped open the cover and set the date on the watch: August 27, 1837. The day the Brutus died. His blood smeared across the clock face as David placed the open watch in a slight depression on the table, just south of modern-day Ghana. The subsonic tone returned and reverberated as David placed the watch. Waves and flickers of light raced along the outlines of the continents, cascades of illumination spread across the table. The colors started to coalesce around the shard of the Brutus, swirling. The illumination doubled and redoubled, as a churning tower of light leapt up from the table, coalescing around the center of the shard, spinning faster and faster.

The column of liquid fire illuminated David’s face. His jaw was clenched, sweat ran down his face, but his eyes remained open, fixated on the towering fountain of light. His hands hovered over the table, shaking as tendrils of light sprang from his fingers, merging with the lines of the continents. David began to chant. “Tempus rerum imperator. Ego sum temporis rectorem. Tempus rerum imperator. Ego sum temporis rectorem. Tempus rerum imperator. Ego sum temporis rectorem…” Over and over David chanted, the lights growing ever brighter, spinning ever faster. His skin began to tighten. His temperature rose so sharply he thought his clothes might catch fire. His nose caught a hint of woodsmoke as he looked down and saw the shard of the Brutus begin to smoke. David’s voice rose to a final bellow, “Ego sum temporis rectorem!

The world went dark.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________

David’s consciousness tumbled into the table, passing through it, down along the roots of the tree and into the earth. Then he exploded outward. Thousands, millions of shards of David Ramsey erupted upward into the atmosphere. As the shards rained down, David could sense a wide swath of land. Impressions seeped into his consciousness. Floodplains, piney forests, farmland, plains, suburbs. Now the spell became dangerous. Soon, the clock would begin to wind down and David’s essence would be taken to the date he had specified. Without cohesion, pieces of himself could be lost along the way. Lonely memories untethered in forgotten times.

David fought to bring his consciousness back together. Pieces he had already captured threatened to slip his grasp as something interesting flowed by. Other pieces wandered far afield, drawn by the allure of things heavenly or horrible. It was like trying to keep a group of friends together at Lollapalooza. David focused his will, concentrated on the shard of the Brutus, and used it as a magnet to summon the fragments of his essence.

As the last of his awareness rushed back to the core, David felt the tug. In his mind – and he was, essentially, all mind now – he saw the dials on the pocket watch spin in its place on the table. He saw the gears behind them turn. He saw the drops of his blood from the table rush toward the column of light, intertwining with it, turning the tables’ glow crimson as the light swirled around the shard. David felt another tug, the movement somehow lateral, and gave himself to the flow. Down into the rabbit hole of time.
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When he emerged from the rabbit hole, David’s consciousness hovered between the dual masts of an ancient schooner. It worked! David paused to toss off a general prayer of thanks to whatever entity watched over illicit time trave- observers and attached an addendum that he hoped the way back would be as…smooth.

David was bodiless, but his awareness seemed to encompass everything around him. Below him sailed a two-masted schooner, slung low in the water, bristling with weapons and triangular sails. The view – for lack of a better term, David supposed – was filmy and white. All the color seemed to have been drained from the scene. Men scurried about the decks like smoky ghosts, tendrils of mist following behind them like a comet’s tail. Curiously wispy showers of salt water sprayed over the deck as the Brutus raced through the waves. Everything was shrouded in shades of white and grey and seemed to have been carved from dense steam. Several hundred yards behind and to the starboard of the Brutus, David saw a similar ghostly ship crashing through the waves as well. That must be the Invincible, Brutus’s sister ship.

It was then that David noticed the spray soaking the sailors came from more than the schooner’s speed. A torrent of water suddenly erupted from the port side of the Brutus, ghostly mist drenching the deck. He focused his awareness to the stern and saw, almost to the edge of his ability to perceive, two massive frigates. As he watched, two tiny puffs of smoke rose from the bow of the advance ship, almost indistinguishable from the appearance of the ships themselves. Two more torrents of water shot up from further behind the Brutus’s bow. The Brutus was outrunning her pursuers, shooting towards the shallows and the entrance to Galveston Bay.

David felt himself rooting for the ship as she slid further from her pursuers, cheering her on captain and crew. Then he saw the Invincible seem to shudder and slam to a halt, a hundred yards or so behind the Brutus. Ghostly men went flying over the rails. One of masts came down, bringing the sails with it. Without thinking, David tried to cast himself toward the Invincible, to see, to help somehow. His movement slammed to a halt at the deck rails. Of course, his attachment to this memory of time was through the shard of the Brutus. He could not cast himself beyond it. Even if he could have moved beyond the Brutus’s rail, there was nothing he could accomplish. What he was seeing was a snow globe, an insect caught in amber, the fossilized imprint of a shell in limestone. If the battle had not been so emotional, so intense for the men involved, even these wavering, ghostly remnants would not be visible. There was no affecting the outcome, no changing it. All he could do was observe.

David hovered as the Brutus slid further into the bay, leaving her sister ship to the mercy of the Mexican frigates. The schooner turned toward the bank, aiming for a spot on the west side of the bay with a high solid bank. As David cast his senses back toward the stern again, he saw the Invincible trading shots with the two Mexican ships. Despite being stranded on a sandbar, the Invincible seemed to be holding up well against the onslaught. Quicker than David would have thought possible in a sailing ship, the ghostly Invincible faded into the distance although the phantom sounds seemed to follow as they coasted further into the bay.

As the ship drew closer to the bank, a foggy group of men on horses appeared. David counted around twenty men, all heavily armed, surrounding a small wagon drawn by a pair of enormous matched Clydesdales. Two men sat apart on their ghostly horses at the head of the party. One sat ramrod straight, a rifle across his lap and heavy revolver on either hip. He was dressed in a black jacket over a white shirt with a mustache that would have won competitions in the modern day. The second man bore something of a family resemblance but sat slouched atop his horse. His clothes were rumpled and his hairline was receding, but as the ship drew to the bank, David caught a glimpse of the man’s eyes behind small wire spectacles. Even seeing only the ghostly impression of the man’s expression, David shuttered at the flat lack of emotion he saw there. As the men cast lines from the ship to men from the escort, David knew that on that bank, behind the guise of a subservient, rumpled scholar, lived a being of terrible power and disdain.

As the ship glided to a stop along the bank, David directed his senses to the bow, where two officers were arguing as they came down to meet the two men and their escorts.

“Captain, we must go back! Even if we can’t drive the Mexicans off, at least we can save some of the Invincible’s crew,” the younger looking man said.

“William, I’ve heard enough. We were given a mission and we need to complete it. I will ask Mr. Allen if we may return to the battle once we have unloaded the cargo, but I doubt he’ll agree. We’re damaged and the Invincible,” the Captain sighed, “the Invincible is likely to be destroyed by the time we return anyway.”

“But sir, her crew? We could – ”

“Enough Mr. Carson! See to unloading the cargo. I will speak with Mr. Allen and his brother.”

David watched as the officer named Carson turned away, leaving the Captain to leap to the bank to meet the Allens. Had he been corporeal, David would have smiled. The Brutus had plundered the artifact from the Eliza Russell – that much he had inferred from his previous investigations – but now he was watching the cargo of the Brutus’s last voyage being delivered to two men that he assumed were the Allen brothers, John Kirby and Augustus, founders of Houston. John Kirby was the elder, the imposing man with the mustache. That left the dead-eyed man as Augustus, former mathematics professor and younger brother.

As he watched, the Captain shook the brothers’ hands while they stayed atop their horses. Their escorts leapt from their horses, carrying chest after chest full of gold bullion, jewels, and random relics to the wagon. In one of the last chests to be brought up from the hold, David saw it. Sitting alone in a rather plain wooden crate, packed atop raw cotton, sat a shining gold clock about eighteen inches high. Of all the things he had seen in this vision, it was the only one with sharp lines and color. Compared to the smoky wisps of remembrance that made up everything else, the clock practically glowed. Intricately carved with towers and spires – David briefly noticed that one spire on the back left was missing – it resembled nothing so much as a miniaturized version of Big Ben, although the clock had been built centuries before, allegedly for the pleasure of King James I.

David breathed – sort of – a sigh of relief. After decades of searching, he could actually see it. He had his proof. Before now, he had moved halfway across the world on the basis of good information, deduction, and some sheer guesswork, but he had had no hard evidence. Now the evidence sat before him, glowing and shining, radiating its power even through this memory. He could even hear the clock mechanism ticking faintly from his place at the ship’s rail. Each chime rang through the ghostly medium. The artifact had been here, and he was closer than ever to locating it. If the Allen brothers had acquired it, it must be located in the Houston somewhere. And he would find it. David felt a moderate case of smug coming on. In almost two centuries, no one else had been able to locate the Clock, but he had. Soon, however, the Allen Brothers and their export would ride away while David’s consciousness would be locked to the ship. It was time to leave.

As he gathered his will to return his consciousness to his body and the modern day, something caught his attention. The First Officer had finished directing the unloading of the cargo and now stood with the Captain speaking to the Allen brothers. Shouting really, while the Captain stood in front of the young man, holding him back and frantically trying to calm him. Curious, David willed his essence to the edge of the railing.

“Mr. Allen, you must let us return to the fight. The Invincible is helpless! We can save her. We can save her crew. We can do something!”

The elder Allen replied, “Mr. Carson, as your Captain has told you and I have told you, that would be a,” John Kirby seemed to pause to consider, “a bad investment.”

The young first officer shook his Captain off and interrupted the elder Allen, forcing himself forward to the man’s boot. “Sir! We are men of the Texas Navy! We will not abandon our comrades to the bloody Mexicans!”

The elder Allen’s foot snapped out and caught the young man underneath the chin. As the officer lay stunned on the ground, Allen responded, “You are privateers and nothing more, you deluded little twit. My brother and I bought that ship. We paid you and the crew. You’re a bloody employee, son, and you’re arguing with your boss.” He dropped his right hand to the butt of his gun. The men of his escort followed suit and a chorus of snaps sounded as weapons were readied. The crew of the Brutus looked to their Captain, but most of them were unarmed and the Captain motioned for them to stand down.

David had to admire the young First Officer. He refused to be cowed, dragging himself from the dirt and turning instead to address the escort, “You are men of Texas! How can you leave your comrades, your countrymen, to death?! We can save them! We can – ”

“Enough of this.” The younger Allen brother’s voice was soft, almost a whisper, but it cut through the shouting and the tension. Carson’s impassioned speech fell silent as the rumpled younger brother looked at him. “Put away your weapons and take the rest of the cargo to the wagon. Now.” Never did he raise his voice, but the men of the escort jumped to finish the loading. David saw the young first officer struggle to speak as Augustus Allen turned back to him.

“Mr. Carson, you want to try and save your friends?” The first officer nodded. “Then you shall lead this crew back into battle.” Augustus raised his hand and streaks of purple lightning shot out and hit the Captain in the chest. David paused. That was the second thing he’d seen in this vision that had not been faded and misty. The Captain was thrown to the ground, where he writhed briefly before August sent another blast of lightning into him. His spasms were so harsh that David heard bones snapping. When the onslaught finally ended, Augustus looked up from the man’s smoking remains and said, “Your command awaits, Mr. Carson.”

David watched as the First Officer and the crew fled back to the ship. The lines were cut away with axes strapped to the rails of the ship. In what had to be record time, the Brutus had pulled away from the bank, its sails beginning to fill with wind. David kept the bulk of his awareness focused on the Allen Brother’s group on the bank. As the Brutus began to gather speed, David saw Augustus motion to one of his men. The man brought him what David thought was a brass-headed cane. The younger Allen took the cane and raised it above his head. A bright flash shot forth from the brass head and suddenly the bay directly ahead of the Brutus erupted in a spray of seawater.

As the spray fell, a sandbar, one that had not been there seconds before, lay directly in the Brutus’s path, stretching hundreds of yards in either direction. The Brutus had no time to turn, no time to stop. As it ran aground, men flew over the railings and masts fell, in a horrible replay of what had happened to the Invincible not long before. David saw men screaming on the deck as cannon rolled over them and masts crushed their limbs.

Near the rear of the ship, he glimpsed the strident first officer crawling across the deck, dragging a broken leg behind him. David saw his target, a six-pounder swivel cannon attached to the rear deck. The young officer drug himself up the ship’s rail, aimed the cannon in the general direction of the Allen Brothers and their men, and lit the fuse. The ship was listing sharply to the right as the Brutus began to break apart. The waves caused the deck to shudder back and forth, but somehow the officer’s shot hit home, the shell plowing through the escorts on their horses. Horses screamed and men fell, but the wagons seemed untouched.

David had seen enough. He knew where the clock had gone and who had taken it. There was no need to hang around and watch the crew of the Brutus drown. There was a sensation of turning as he began to gather his consciousness for the trip back. Just has he began to slip away, a flash of green lightning leapt from the bank. David saw Augustus there, brass-headed cane thrust outward. The lightning tore through the desk and the sails, setting them aflame. David faintly heard the young First Officer scream as the lightning ripped through him as well. As David’s consciousness faded, the emerald lightning leapt from the top of the mast and seared through him as well. The lightning burned the visions away as it ripped through his awareness. No one but David heard his screams as he fell back into the darkness.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________

David awoke. He took this as a good sign. A quick assessment of his surroundings indicated that he was, as odd as it sounded, lying on the banks of a river. Close to his right stood a tree line that looked somehow unnatural. David could no see more than a yard into the forest and the edge of the tree line might have been drawn with a ruler. To his left, the bank of the river looked the same, unnaturally straight as far as he could see. Everything around him was straight lines, ninety-degree angles, and abnormal stillness. Even the water, which flowed downstream, made no noise and moved so effortlessly that the river resembled a pane of glass. With this information in hand, as well as the fact that he was no longer a disembodied consciousness – he wangled his fingers in front of his eyes, arm still covered in black silk – but not yet home, David deduced that he must be elsewhere. Exactly where was certainly up for debate.

As he turned back from the bank, David found a man standing between him and forest. Well, man was the best descriptor he could apply to what he saw. Man-shaped, about six feet tall, the figure was dressed in blue jeans and a white button-up with the sleeves rolled up. But above the neck, all resemblance to a man ended. Nothing but smooth flat skin covered his face, except for a vertical mouth, lined with serrated incisors like shark teeth. David could not tell if he was more startled by the figure’s appearance or when a voice rasped out its maw.

“Long since one has visited us here.” The voice sounded like a jackhammer would if it could speak, complete with wavering stutters and volume. And, somehow, a faint Australian accent. David shuttered as he watched the figure’s jaws twist themselves around the words and its own teeth. “Welcome to our shores.”

David’s voice wavered in response, “Thank you?”

“Longer still since someone has left this place.” The figure placed no particular emphasis on the word ‘left.’

David forced himself into a sitting position and started trying to communicate with his legs. “Well, sorry to bother you then old chap. I’ll just be pushing on then. Could you direct me to the exit?”

“Do you not know the way, wizard? Have you no knowledge of how to return home?”

“Well, I must admit I am not entirely sure where I have landed, which makes it hard to get one’s bearings. If you’ll be so kind as to – ”

“You are Outside, mageling.” The world shuttered as the figure said Outside. David’s stomach threatened to empty itself on the ground. His legs, which he had just succeeded in getting underneath himself, went rubbery, dropping him back to the ground. Outside. No longer within the reality he knew. Outside of time itself.

The figure turned its sightless gaze toward David once again. “What were the words you spoke to get here?”

David blinked, confused, “What?”

“We saw you mageling. A dabbler, a ritualist. No true wizard, but you built a bridge to the past. Forswearing the laws of your people, you swam against the currents of time – ” David suddenly found his mental footing. He had prepared a defense against that argument, just in case the Wardens ever dropped by. He interrupted the figure.

“Technically, I just observed the currents of time at a different spot. I did not swim against the currents so much as…walk along the shore.”

The figure’s jaws spit out words again. “No! You walk along the shore now mortal. Time is the river, but you are outside time. If you wish to return, tell me what you said.”

David found the figure’s sightless gaze and grating voice impossible to resist. He whispered as he looked down at the ground, “Ego sum temporis rectorem.”

“What does it mean mortal?”

David’s voice was hardly audible, “I am the ruler of time.”

The figure began to laugh, a sound that made fingernails on a chalkboard sound like a Mozart symphony. David could hear the demon’s teeth grate together as he collapsed to the ground, covering his ears. The laughter only got worse, echoing and rebounding as the demon’s mirth persisted. The laughter drilled directly into David’s mind, mocking his hubris.

“We are the masters of time mortal.” David felt his head wrenched up from the ground. The Outsider, for that’s what it must be, twisted David’s neck until he could feel its fetid breath on his face. “See!” The demon shoved David’s face toward the forest, dragging his limp body along the bank. The entire tree line seemed to writhe as tentacles, and worse, exploded forth from the forest. The demons covered the distance between the forest and David almost instantaneously. His head still held up by the demon’s hands, David found himself surrounded by Lovecraftian nightmares. Hundreds of tentacles, claws, and talons reached for David’s face.

As each demonic appendage brushed his face, a separate vision shot through David’s mind. Each was a vision of pain and death, battlefields, assassinations, murders and worse. David saw heads roll from guillotines, and bodies drawn and quartered. Cannon balls shattered the bodies of soldiers and evil barbers carved up the skin of their victims. Blood shot from the head of a young man riding in a car. The visions flowed through David’s mind, each one worst than the last, each one an image of violence and grief and…importance. He could not identify many of the visions, but he knew, somehow, that each one represented a cusp, a place where things could have turned out differently. Where these Outsiders had influenced the course of events, either directly or through proxies. Where the flow of time had been altered.

David returned to himself with the demon’s vertical maw still filling his sight, blurred slightly by tears. The rest of the outsiders had disappeared, leaving only the original demon’s face so close that David could feel its teeth scraping lightly against his skin. “You are not the ruler of time, mortal, but you could be. Seek the artifact, seek the Clock. Help us forge the bridge to your world and we will make time your plaything.” The demon’s tongue lashed along David’s cheek and the flood of visions roared through him again. More visions of where time had been altered to suit the whims of the Outsiders. David collapsed to the ground as the demon released him. The demon’s voice hissed again, “Seek the artifact, or you will beg for what you just saw to be your fate.” David’s breath exploded out of his lungs as the demon kicked him over onto his back. A small item dropped from the demon’s hands onto David’s chest. “On your way, mortal.” The demon’s foot lashed out and David found himself hurled over the edge of the bank. His hands grasped the item that the demon had given him as he plunged into the water. “Seek the artifact David Ramsay. Time is wasting.”
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David awoke again. He was less inclined to assume it was a good sign this time. But when he opened his eyes, David found himself once again in his backyard. The sky was still dark and the wind still rustled the leaves of the oaks above him. David pushed himself into a sitting position. As he did, a lump of gold rolled into his lap. Not much larger than a game piece, it was carved and shaped like a spire. Of a clock tower. David stared at the piece of gold. At least he had not returned entirely empty handed.

His table was a wreck though. The bronze had split right along the Texas coast. A smudge of ash on either side of the crack was all that was left of the shard of the Brutus. As David’s hand touched the table, it seemed to deflate, to crumble. Most of the bronze around where David had placed the shard simply disintegrated, floating to the ground as dust. Several hand-sized pieces around the edge survived more or less intact, but the tree was dead as well. Its branches were charcoal, still glowing orange in some places and none of the silvery leaves had survived.

David starred down at the wreckage of his greatest magical construct. He brought the golden spire up to his eyes. Not quite empty-handed at all. He reached his hand into the wreckage of his table to retrieve his pocketwatch. Smudged, scuffed and warm to the touch, it still ticked away the seconds when he opened it. He slipped both it and the golden spire into his pocket. Ego sum temporis rectorem. He turned to limp his way back into his house, leaving the smoking remnants behind. Ramsay est temporis rectorem. It had a nice ring to it.

View
Hudson Pearce: Flashback
El Noche del Lobo or Many Monsters, One Ranger

Hudson crouched in the shadows, sweat stinging his eyes. The sweat was almost certainly because it was 95 degrees, even three hours after sundown, and not because he was sneaking up a cartel hit squad. He stared out over the room, the first floor of an abandoned office building. Wires daggled from the ceiling, and cheap ceiling tiles cluttered the floor. Graffiti-covered support beams were scatted between him and five cartel thugs standing in the center of the room. Hudson crouched lower in the shadows as he tried to get a better look his adversaries. They were prowling around the room, heads turning left and right, growling and…sniffing? The one Hudson thought was in charge slammed to a halt and bellowed, his face turned dangerously close to Hudson’s hiding place.

“Where are you Ranger? Come, El Guarda Negro, I know you’re out there. You left El Paso without letting me say goodbye. I’m more than a little miffed mi amigo. Come’on out and we’ll talk about it. Surely you wouldn’t want to disappoint such a dear old friend, you cowardly little shit.”

Hudson noticed that the speaker had odd notions of friendship as he held his crouch. All he had brought with him was his service revolver, his shotgun Maria, and one uncertain ace-in-the-hole. He was a good shot, but five-on-one were poor odds. His Captain would have told him not to come anyway. He should back out and live to fight. No reason to stay and no reason to play this thug’s game where he had homefield advantage. Hudson was shuffling back out when the man stopped pacing and spoke again.

“Nervous, El Guardo? Perhaps you think I’ll be angry after being abandoned. Well, if the opportunity to finally bring me in isn’t enough, perhaps I can encourage you to join our little party.” He motioned to one of the other cartel members. The subordinate was a large man, Latino. He was over six feet tall with dark, tangled hair, well muscled under a dirty tank top and tan cargo pants. He growled at the leader and slapped his hand down. The reaction was immediate. The leader, although more than half a foot shorter, caught the other’s wrist and turned to stare into his eyes. Even from his hiding space across the building, Hudson could hear the thug’s wrist bones snapping as the larger man sunk to his knees, eyes still locked with the speaker.

The smaller man knelt down to whisper in his subordinate’s ear, but his voice carried throughout the building. “I am El Loco Lobo, mi amigo. Defy me again and I will feed you your heart. Now go bring me our guest’s present.” Hudson watched as El Lobo dropped the thug’s arm and turned away.

“Sorry about that Ranger. It’s awfully hard to find good help these days. Some people simply will not believe a reputation until you shove their faces in it.” The cowed subordinate returned, dragging a hooded figure behind him with his good arm. El Lobo knelt next to the figure and pulled the hood from her head. It was a woman, a girl really, well under the drinking age if Hudson was any judge. Her hair was tangled and matted. Her face of was mask of tear-streaked makeup. There were bruises on her cheeks and scratches down the side of her face that disappeared under the neckline of her tank-top. The claw marks looked like those Hudson had once seen on a mauling victim. Witnesses had told then that the cartel had thrown two starved Rottweilers into a pit with a member who’d been skimming. At the time Hudson had marveled at how, apart from the claw marks, the victim’s face had been relatively unscathed even when his body cavity had been hollowed out, scraps of intestines scattered about the pit floor.

Hudson shook his head to clear the memories. With one last glance toward the service entrance he’d used enter the building, Hudson turned back toward the scene in the center of the room.

“Ranger. Ranger! If you won’t grace us with your presence, your spot on the guest list will have to be filled by someone else.” The young woman shuttered as El Lobo caressed the side of her face. “It doesn’t seem like she wants to party this evening, but someone must provide the entertainment.” El Lobo slid a small blade from his belt, dragging it across the young woman’s face. “Someone will bleed tonight, Ranger. Choose.”

Hudson had never seen the woman before, but he couldn’t leave her here. Hell, assuming she was on his side (She could be a plant. The cartel had done it before.), then the odds were five to two now. That had to be better. He glanced over his shoulder again, but Charlie was nowhere to be seen. Hudson couldn’t blame him. He hadn’t known about the girl and he wasn’t a cop. Looked like it was up to him. Hudson flicked the safety off on his revolver. And the day had started out so well…
_________________________________________________________________________________________________

Hudson leaned back in his chair, boots propped on the table. He wouldn’t have reclined so in someone’s house, but Khon always saved a spot for him in the mornings and the chairs were just so damned comfy. He’d stayed longer than usual before heading into the office too. Normally he’d feel a might guilty about lingering over coffee at 9:30 a.m., but it wasn’t like Houston’s criminal element were particularly early risers. Case in point, Hudson’s informer had begged for this meeting last night but was over twenty minutes late.

Hudson shifted his gun belt where it had started to dig into his side. He could set it beside his Stetson – straw of course, to hot for felt – but its weight on his hip was always reassuring. Not to mention discouraging company. Didn’t exactly make it comfortable though. Hudson sighed, sipped his coffee, and flipped another page in Wilkin’s The Law Comes to Texas.

About twenty minutes later, Hudson caught a flash of movement in the reflection of the coffee shop’s windows. Raising his eyes from the page, he saw a young man approaching him, short but stoutly built with lank black hair that fell over his eyes. Hudson supposed he might even be handsome if his wardrobe didn’t consist of mismatched flip-flops, faded jeans, and a Hawaiian shirt that made Liberace’s outfits look subdued. Hudson had always wondered if Charlie had that little fashion sense or if his sartorial choices were calculated misdirection, intended to fool his marks into thinking he was as dumb as he looked. Of course, Hudson would never get a straight answer, so he never asked.

Without moving or even appearing to look up, Hudson spoke. “You look like a Port Aransas dope dealer, Charlie. You know, if you were going to be late because you needed to make bail, you coulda called.”

“I never should have turned you on to Ray Wylie Hubbard. I’d’ve been here sooner, but I was tracking down some leads for your sorry ass.” Charlie stopped, “Hudson, can I sit down?”

Something in the tone of Charlie’s voice caused Hudson to put down his book and look up. Charlie’s eyes were darting around the parking lot, trying to look everywhere at once. He was wringing his hands and then running them through his hair for variety. Hudson motioned to one of the other chairs.

“By all means, Charlie. Care to tell me what’s got you jumping around like butter on a hot griddle?”

Charlie eased into a chair that gave him a full view of the parking lot. His hands continued to look for a place to alight before he blurted out, “Hudson, where do you live?”

“Looking to come over? Watch the game? You’re a good informant Charlie, but I’m not sure I want you dropping by for a beer.”

“Goddamnit Hudson, could you quit thinking of me as a ‘known associate’ for a minute and realize I’m trying to help you? Fuck!” Charlie slammed his hand on the table.

“Calm down, son. Let me getcha a drink. Khon! Could you bring me a cup of Earl Grey for my young friend here?” About sixty seconds later, Charlie was holding a mug of steaming tea in his still shaking hands.

“Earl Grey? Never took you for a Next Gen fan, Hudson.”

“Tea is soothing, you looked tense, and I preferred DS9. Now, why don’t you start from the beginning?”

Charlie sighed, “The beginning’s a little tough. I’ll just keep it simple. Hudson,” Charlie’s hands stopped shaking and he looked up from his mug, “Someone’s trying to kill you.”
_________________________________________________________________________________________________

Hudson started to circle to the right side of the room. El Lobo continued to slide his blade along the cheeks of the sobbing woman, but Hudson could not help her yet. He needed to get closer to the cartel members first. He was a crack shot with his revolver, but beyond about twenty-five yards he might as well throw the damn pistol, especially in combat. He didn’t see any guns, but each of the cartel members seemed to have at least one knife. Hudson would need to take at least a couple of them down quick to have any chance of getting himself and the hostage out alive.

“I’m beginning to take offense at your tardiness, Ranger! This is no way to treat a guest! You should be thanking me. You were always to slow to catch me! The one man El Guarda Negro could never find. El Víbora, Los Serpientes, La Tortuga. All of them played the hare to your plodding but resolute tortoise. All manner of reptile-themed cartel hit men nearly shat themselves at the mere mention of your name. But you could never find me, could you? El Lobo Loco…”

Hudson considered putting the revolver to his own head for a moment, just to stop the bastard’s incessant rambling. But the Rangers taught patience. Hudson continued his slow creep. Nothing to draw the eye, nothing to give them a target. At least he had confirmation on his perp. El Loco Lobo. Ridiculous name, but a dangerous man. Even hardened cartel capos were uncomfortable about having El Lobo called in. He’d been brazen and vicious but sloppy. He had excelled at frightening people though. He liked to kill his victims by hanging them upside down and then disemboweling them. The poor bastards took forever to die and the visual was, no doubt, an effective deterrent against crossing the cartel.

Before he transferred to Houston, Hudson had been chasing El Lobo for almost three years. In that time, he’d never caught more than a glimpse of the guy. The only picture he had was a grainy, half-profile shot from a bodega security camera. Hudson never caught the guy, but he had run the sadistic little shit off half a dozen jobs and gotten his victims into witness protection and testifying instead of dead. Not a complete victory, but satisfying enough. Hudson supposed he should wonder why El Lobo was here, now, trying to kill him. It really didn’t matter though. If the jackass wanted to give him a good reason to tie up a loose end, there was no reason not to take him up on it. Plus, the girl still sat weeping on the floor. El Lobo’s blade had started to paint faint lines of red on her cheeks.

Hudson was almost in position. He brought his weapon up slowly, resting it on pile of abandoned drywall. His finger stroked the trigger as he locked his sites on El Lobo’s head. As the hammer fell back, Hudson noticed that the cartel thug with the bum wing had disappeared during El Lobo’s monologue. Hudson felt someone tap his right shoulder.

“Boo.”
_________________________________________________________________________________________________

Hudson laughed. “Charlie, I’m a Texas Ranger. I’ve spent the better part of the last decade chasin’ cartel scum from El Paso to Brownsville. My car’s been sabotaged at least twice, and I’m pretty sure that the last time the brakes went out it wasn’t exactly an accident. Forgive me if I’m not particularly worried.”

“Hudson, this isn’t some cartel payback.” Charlie paused. “Well, I guess it kind of is, but the Rangers won’t be able to help you with this. It’s is from my side of the street.”

“You mean ghosts and wizards and all that hocus pocus shit? Come’on Charlie, I know it helps in the scams, but let’s try and stay – ”

“Shut-up Hudson!” Hudson started. Charlie had never spoken to him like that before. Never cut him off or raised his voice. “I’m deadly serious. I know you don’t believe in the supernatural and you’d dismiss anything I did right now as a parlor trick. But I need you to listen. Look, you come to me for information – ”

“Yeah, info on the occult community and the activities of human traffickers and other deluded psychos.”

“Alright, fine. Look at it this way. One of those deluded psychos is coming to kill you. I’m pretty sure he’s already in town. Calls himself El Lobo Loco. Supposedly he’s cartel and a – ”

Hudson stopped with his coffee halfway to his lips. Lobo.

“Name rings a bell, I see. Listen, we need to find you a place to hole up.”

“Why’d you ask about my house?”

“My place won’t – wait, what?”

“When you got here, you asked where I lived, why?”

“Oh, I wanted to know if you had a threshold. Most supernatural beings have trouble with the energy that surrounds a home. Where do you live by the way?”

“1301 Braeswood.” Charlie starred at him blankly. “The Extended Stay Deluxe. It’s a hotel.”

“Well, a threshold probably wouldn’t have worked anyway. Listen, we need to hide you for a while – "

“Charlie, I’m not going to hide. This guy’s tried to kill me before. Hasn’t gotten lucky yet. You got anything more specific?”

“Not yet, but I can get some if – ”

Hudson’s phone rang. It was his work phone, a Blackberry one of the higher-ups had pawned off on him. Damn thing worked less than half the time. Probably just someone wondering why it was 10am and he wasn’t in yet. He considered muting it, but…

“Hang on a minute Charlie, I gotta take this.”

Hudson walked out to the parking lot. He listened to the call, spoke briefly in response, nodded and hung up. As he sat back down at the table, Charlie asked him, “Who was that?”

Hudson tilted his head and stared at his informant. Under the table, he slid his hand down to his hip and rested it on the strap of his holster. “That was you Charlie. You wanted to set up a meeting. For tonight. Alone.”
_________________________________________________________________________________________________

As he rolled across the floor, Hudson briefly tried to determine whether the blow or the landing ten feet away had hurt more. The swat had rung his bell pretty good initially, but he had smacked the back of his head when he landed too. He should have been seeing stars and little birds from the landing, but it looked like the shot had diverted his personal flock. He guessed that made it a draw.

Hudson tried to scramble to his feet and aim, but another blow knocked the revolver out of his hand. The backswing threw him another five yards against one of the room’s pillars. Hudson thought he might have bruised it.

“Ranger Pearce, so good of you to join us.” A blurry figure knelt down in front of Hudson. It was the large man that had challenged El Lobo earlier. He growled. Literally growled, a rough animal rumble from deep within his throat. And he was leaning on his ‘wounded’ arm. “Are you familiar with what the Russians call ‘maskirovka?’ Couldn’t risk that you might get in a lucky shot before I found you. A few more moments, and you might have hit Lobito. I am Lobo and it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” The man dangled his blade in front of Hudson. It swung like a pendulum before his eyes. “And I’m going to take days to kill you.”

While El Lobo preened, Hudson slipped his hand behind his back. He wondered whether this guy had coached his plant in clichéd dialogue as well as diversion. Hudson finally grasped what he wanted. He locked eyes with Lobo. “Never bring a knife to a gun fight.”
_________________________________________________________________________________________________

Charlie and Hudson starred at each other across the table. Hudson’s hand rested lightly on the butt of his revolver. Charlie jerked his eyes away after only a moment. “Why won’t you look at me Charlie? What the hell’s going on? Who the hell are you?” Hudson thumbed off the revolver’s safety. Charlie’s eye widened at the sound of the click.

“It’s not that – it’s – fuck! I am Charlie Harper. You gotta believe me Hudson. Someone wants to kill you and I bet you dollars to donuts that whoever it was on the phone is working for this Lobo guy.”

Hudson looked down at the…man sitting at the table. He remembered something he’d heard from a bruja outside Laredo once, about when visitors came round after dark. “Bleed for me.”

“Hudson, wait, that won’t…”

“Bleed.”

Charlie heaved a sigh. “I’ve got a better idea. Well, it’s a worse one, but it might allay your fears. Have you ever heard of a ‘soulgaze?’”

“I’ve heard it’s a bad idea.”

“It is, but hopefully afterward you’ll be satisfied I am who I say I am. Look into my eyes Hudson.”

Hudson hesitated. He did not really think that the man in front of him was an imposter, but he hadn’t lived this long by not being cautious. Charlie Harper was an admitted thief, a talented con-artist, and cunning enough to have survived selling some very shoddy merchandise to some very nasty people. From what he’d heard though, the soulgaze (if it was real) wasn’t something you could fake. If Charlie’s concern was counterfeit, or someone was counterfeiting Charlie, they were better than anyone Hudson had ever seen. “You look into mine, Dracula.”

The effect was almost instantaneous. Charlie’s gaze reached out and dragged Hudson in. Hudson felt himself stretch and shrink until Khon’s disappeared and everything faded. He lost all sense of place. Just as panic began to overwhelm him, Hudson found himself standing in the doorway of a cramped room. Not cramped because of the size. In fact, the room was huge. Charlie could have thrown batting practice in it, and the ceilings were over twelve feet high and covered in bookshelves. One of those rolling ladders sat near the back window near an equally cluttered and equally massive desk. No, the room was cramped because it was full of books, most of them ornate tomes with gilded covers. Books covered the tables, the walls, and were even piled on a full-sized couch set near a stone fireplace.

But it wasn’t just the books. It was the people. Or the person. At the desk under the window sat an old man, head bowed over an ancient-looking tome that seemed as large as he was. And around him stood Charlie Harper. Dozens of Charlie Harpers. All looked exactly like the Charlie that Hudson had just been having coffee with, at least in their facial features.

But it was like looking at identical twins with serious identity issues. Each Charlie stood differently, was dressed differently, wore their hair differently. Instead of the young slacker with a wry grin and a loud shirt, one of the Charlie’s sat on the desk to the right of the old man dressed in cutoff jeans and a tank top, swinging his legs while sucking on a lollipop. Another Charlie leaned over his grandfather’s left shoulder, staring intently at the open tome. He was dressed in a dark blazer and tan slacks. His hair was slicked back over his head and glasses perched on the end of his nose. Still another Charlie lay sprawled on the couch among the books. This one’s eyes were sunken, his clothes ripped, and Hudson could see grime caked underneath his fingernails. Another Charlie in a $1,000 suit rummaged through papers in a briefcase propped atop one of the piles of books. Very upstanding, except for the grinning skull embossed on the briefcase’s dark leather. Another dressed in rough overalls fed wood into the fire. Another…

Hudson fell against the doorway, squeezing his eyes shut to try and stop the flood of Charlies. When he opened them, two Charlies stood in front of him. One was the junkie Charlie from the couch. The other one Hudson had not noticed initially among the crowd. This Charlie closely resembled the Charlie Hudson knew, but more seemed more composed. His eyes were clear, sharp. Dark pressed jeans covered polished boots. Charlie’s ubiquitous Hawaiian shirt remained but displayed a rather subdued pattern of blues. Could have been worse, Hudson thought.

“I’m Charlie Harper,” the twins said. A strange dissonance accompanied the words. Each Charlie spoke the same words, with the same inflection, but just a touch out of sequence with each other. It was like listening to radio broadcast of a baseball game you were watching in person. Or like kids doing a round. Evil kids.

“I’m Hudson Pearce. Do you know me?”

“I know you. I like (hate) you.” Again, the Charlies spoke the same words, except the descriptor, and again there was a slight dissonance. The words twisted and wavered, fighting each other for control of the message. Hudson felt pressure begin to build behind his eyes.

“What are you doing here? I want to help (hurt) you, but I’m not sure why. Why have you come?” This time the echo was noticeably fainter and the groomed Charlie had taken a step forward while the other one sneered over his shoulder. “Why have you come? Why are you here?” The pressure continued to build behind Hudson’s eyes, doubling and redoubling. He crashed to his knees and fell to all fours on the floor, gasping for breath. The Charlie’s stood over him, repeating their questions, one passive, one leering. Hudson was pretty sure he had his answer, but he had to know. He forced his eyes open as he raised his head. His voice broke as he shouted.

“Are you Charlie Harper!?”

Every Charlie in the room turned to stare at Hudson. Dozens of pairs of eyes bored into him. A chorus responded. The wave of sound sent Hudson’s consciousness spinning into the black. One phrase from dozens of mouths followed him with a shattering roar.

“_I_ am Charlie Harper.”
_________________________________________________________________________________________________

Hudson came back to himself slumped in a chair at Khon’s. Charlie and Kohn were both standing over him: Khon concerned, Charlie a little shakily.

“What happened?”

Khon answered. “I came out to bring you more tea. You and Charlie here were just staring at each other. Then he fell forward and broke his damn mug. You collapsed on my sidewalk. What the hell happened?”

“Nothing Khon, just a little…tension. If you’d get me another cup of coffee, I’d be obliged.”

Khon looked at both and shrugged his shoulders. “Whatever you say Hudson. Just try not to break anymore of my dishes or scare anymore of my customers.”

In short order, Khon had gotten both of them another drink, discreetly placing the check on the table when he left. Charlie had regained his chair opposite Hudson.

“Alright Charlie, what the hell was that?”

“I told you, a soulgaze. If you get locked in one with a…practitioner, I guess, you see the inner soul of the other person. You get an idea of who and what they are. Only works with people though, supernaturals got no soul. It can still be intense though.”

“No shit. You alright?”

“You’re the one that fainted, but other than almost being suffocated by your sense of moral superiority, I’m fine.” Charlie frowned at Hudson, “What’d you see?”

Hudson stared into his coffee. “Another time. I’m pretty sure you’re you though.”

Charlie rolled his eyes, “Thanks.”

“No charge.”

“What now, Ranger Pearce?”

Hudson looked deeper into his coffee. The answers had to be in there somewhere. That…that experience…had been about 180 degrees off normal. He remembered more of the stories the old brujas and witch-women in Mexico had told him. Stories about eyes being the windows to the soul. Stories about people losing their souls and their sanity. Stories about demons and worse. Stories that were obviously impossible, and just as obviously scared the hell out of the locals. Just like that experience had scared the hell out of Hudson. His coffee continued failing to provide any answers.

When he spoke, it was in a whisper. “Charlie, you mentioned earlier that this threat was something from your side of the street. What did you mean? Who is the Lobo? What is the Lobo?”

“He’s a lycanthrope.”

“What is…? Oh, who cares? Can I kill him? It?”

“What caliber is your service revolver?”

“Forty-five.”

“Dirty Harry?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re going to need something more.”

Hudson looked into Charlie’s eyes. When nothing happened, he spoke softly. “Who do you know?”

“A guy in the Galleria. His name is David Ramsey. He’s got…skills.”

Hudson’s coffee continued its lack of contribution to the conversation. Hudson pushed himself up and tossed a twenty on the table. “Come on Charlie. I’m gonna need an introduction.”
________________________________________________________________________________________________
Hudson’s backup gun was small, a Sig Sauer P229 to be precise, but three rounds was more than enough to throw El Lobo off him. Hudson scrambled to his feet as Lobo’s lackeys charged. Everything was still a little blurry in the dim room, but Hudson had been to the shooting range at least six days a week for more than a decade. He let instinct guide him. Seven shots roared from the Sig and three of his attackers fell, howling.

The sound was terrifying. It slipped around Hudson’s concentration and danced directly on his brainstem. The howls warned of rage, fear and untimely death. Humans did not make sounds like that. Animals made sounds like that. Hunters. Predators.

Hudson shuttered and wiped the sweat from his eyes again. He dropped the Sig and pulled his shotgun off his back. The three cartel members he’d shot were still writhing on the floor, howling, all of them with multiple gunshot wounds. He must have aimed better than he thought. However, most people would be crying in pain right now, not rage. Or going into shock. Hudson saw one try to push himself off the ground and then collapse, but only because the compound fracture of his femur could not hold his weight. These three may not be charging him anymore, but they were far from cowed.

What Hudson could not see were the last two cartel members. The young woman was still weeping on the floor near the center of the room, but lil’Lobo was M.I.A. So was El Lobo Grande that Hudson had shot. Eyes peeled, shotgun raised, the Ranger shuffled toward his service revolver. As he switched the shotgun to his left hand and reached for his pistol, the Lobo’s voice floated in from somewhere in the building. Somehow it was audible even over the cries of his minions.

“Nice shooting Ranger, but not good enough. That little gun tickled. No one told you what I was, did they? It’ll take a bit more than a holdout pistol to put me down.”

Three shots to the gut, and the asshole still wouldn’t shut the fuck up. Hudson struggled to find his voice, but when he did it was as strong ever. “You sound a little winded, Lobo. Want to call it off for tonight? Start again fresh in the morning. You know, after you’ve had a good night’s sleep?”

Lobo hissed, “I’ll sleep like a baby after I’ve ripped your entrails from your stomach with my bare hands.”

Hudson thought the voice had been coming from his right. The attack came from the his left. The smaller man, El Lobo Primero, roared as he sprinted across the floor, running on all fours. Hudson felt like he was suspended in honey as he tried to turn. The revolver in his right hand seemed to drift up. The…thing was going to hit him before he could shoot.

A blast of force hit them both when little Lobo was less than an arm’s length away. Hudson could gauge the distance so precisely because he felt the faintest touch of the man’s fingers on his throat before they both went flying across the room. Hudson saw the man’s head slam into one of the pillars as he tumbled across the floor. Again. The man’s neck went rubbery as he hit the pillar. As the cartel thug slumped to the floor, his head dropped to the side and his neck formed a ninety-degree angle. Hudson could see a bulge where the man’s spine threatened to poke through his skin. Another down, thought Hudson.

Miraculously, Hudson had managed to hang on to his guns. As he shoved himself off the floor, he saw Charlie with what looked like a wrench, brandishing it at a rapidly closing Lobo. Bolts of something flew from the end of Charlie’s tool, staggering the Lobo when they connected, gouging trenches out of some of the support pillars when they didn’t. El Lobo dodged the last…shot and swiped at Charlie with a hand whose fingers curled like claws. Charlie swung the wrench, barely deflecting the Lobo’s hand from his face.

“Goddamnit Hudson! Shoot the bastard!” Charlie screamed, then he disappeared from view, leaving the Lobo swiping wildly at the air. Undeterred, El Lobo growled as he turned his attention to Hudson. Spit flew from his lips as he hissed.

“Your puny little spellslinging sidekick can’t stop me Hudson. I am beyond humans now. Stronger than you! Faster than you! Above you – ”

Charlie’s voice came out of nowhere, “Will you shoot the monologuing son-of-a-bitch already?!”

Charlie’s voice shook Hudson out of his shock. His revolver snapped up this time, the sights lined up with the Lobo’s heart. The gun roared. Lobo’s head snapped back, but he kept stalking forward. At least he’d stopped talking, Hudson thought. The gun roared again but the Lobo kept coming. Four more shots, and Hudson’s revolver clicked empty. The Lobo maintained his pace. There were six .45 caliber holes in his chest, but Hudson imagined he could see them beginning to close in the dim, wavering light. They certainly were not gushing blood like they were supposed to.

The Lobo’s breath came heavily. “That more than tickled. But you’re done, and I’m not.”

Hudson felt paralyzed. He’d shot the guy – he stopped to count – at least nine times now and he was still coming, if somewhat shakily.

Charlie’s voice came from right behind him. “The goddamn shotgun Hudson. Use the fucking shell.”

Hudson guessed that was all he had left. As the Lobo marched forward, he dropped his pistol, brought up the long gun, and racked open the chamber. He snatched a shell from his coat pocket. Instead of the usual brass and red plastic, this shell glowed in the faint light. Colored stripes swirled on its surface. Hudson didn’t stop to admire it, but jammed it into the chamber and racked the gun closed. He took careful aim at the Lobo as the snarling killer broke into a run.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________

Hudson stepped into a steampunk fan’s wet dream.

“Charlie, are you sure about this?”

“Who’s the supernatural expert here, you or me? Shut up and follow my lead.” Charlie pushed in front of Hudson and marched down the hall.

“Who’s the deluded scam artist here?” Hudson mumbled.

“What was that?”

“Nothing. Guide me, O thou great Jehovah.”

Charlie gave him a weird look at led him into the…shop, Hudson supposed. The walls were covered in glass-enclosed cases that contained dozens, if not hundreds of clocks. Grandfather clocks, cuckoo clocks, pocketwatches, the works. Hudson felt a sudden urge to make sure he left before noon to avoid being deafened.

Every space not covered in clocks was covered in gears. Gears of every conceivable size and shape. Little ones that made Hudson want to pull out the glasses he secreted in his jacket pocket lay next to gears the size of industrial cable rolls. In fact, one of the largest gears had been set atop a beautifully carved wooden base that seemed to have grown out of the floor. Atop the table’s glass surface sat a steaming kettle and three small cups. On the other side of the table lounged a youngish looking man with tousled blonde hair, dressed completely in black, small-label clothing. Only a gold silk tie broke the sartorial monotony. His face was unremarkable except for a faint smile that Hudson thought might be this man’s version of what Hudson’s uncle used to call a ‘shit-eating grin.’ When the man spoke, it was with a heavy, if perfectly clear, upper crust British accent.

“Aziz, would you be so kind as to take your break now? Feel free to take enough for a latte from the petty cash. And could you please lock the shop door on your way out?”

“Of course sir.” A small, middle-aged Arab man bowed to Charlie and Hudson as he walked from behind the register and out the door. The young man rose as the duo approached the table and stretched his hand out to Charlie.

“Charlie, how good to see you again!” He released Charlie’s hand and turned to shake Hudson’s. “And you must be Ranger Pearce. As I’m sure Charlie informed you, I’m David Ramsey. How might I be of assistance to the famous Texas Rangers?”

Hudson had always trusted his initial impressions of people. It was hard to hide your true self from a trained and blooded Texas Ranger. But when he shook Mr. Ramsey’s hand – firm handshake, but not aggressively so – he picked up nothing. He got no read from the shop owner at all. It was…disconcerting. He frowned, but decided to move forward, assuming the same demeanor he used when investigating.

“A pleasure, Mr. Ramsey. And, I’d like to be clear, I’m here on behalf of myself and not in my official capacity. May we sit down?”

“Please, Mr. Pearce, have a seat. Would you like tea?”

Hudson nodded and waited while Mr. Ramsey poured for them, declining any sugar or lemon. Mr. Ramsey finally sat and looked toward the Ranger.

“You’re not very sure of me, are you Mr. Pearce?”

“You’re very perceptive, Mr. Ramsey.”

“Let me guess. You’re a little put off by the,” he waved his free hand to indicate the shop, “décor.”

“That’s part of it.”

“Ah. Let me assure you, Mr. Pearce, despite my association with someone like Charlie Harper, I am a legitimate businessman. I’m a clockmaker, not a fence. I deal in antiques, repair pocket watches and other heirlooms. Occasionally, I charge an absurd amount of money to construct unique timepieces for the embarrassingly rich. I’ve also been known to build things less,” Mr. Ramsey sipped his tea, “mundane. Now, Charlie has told me you are in need of some unusual,” he drew out the word, “ordinance. Is that correct?”

Hudson rubbed his jaw as he looked at the young man. He nodded as he made his decision. “Yes. Charlie tells me I might need something unusual,” Hudson drew the word out as well, “to apprehend a, uh…” Hudson glanced at Charlie.

“A lycanthrope,” Charlie supplied.

“A very…special suspect. Could you make me something?”

“Depends. What do you use?”

“12-gauge Remington.”

“S-Mart’s top of the line. Splendid. Time is of the essence, I assume?”

“The sooner, the better. I’d like it by this afternoon, if possible.” Hudson replied.

“Ah, tempus rerum imperator. I can have one shell for you by 6 pm this evening if that is satisfactory. I assume you’ll be paying cash?”

Hudson had hit an ATM on the way to Ramsey’s shop. Then he’d had to actually go into the bank after Charlie told him how much he might need. Citibank had a daily withdrawal limit from its ATMs. He nodded.

“Excellent gentlemen. If you could please stop by at closing, you’ll have your ordinance.”

Hudson stood and Charlie followed. He stuck out his hand toward Mr. Ramsey. “Thank you. I appreciate your assistance. I hope your ‘ordinance’ is everything Charlie claims it is.”

Mr. Ramsey’s perpetual grin became a full-grown smile. “I assure you, Mr. Pearce. I’ve never had an unsatisfied customer.”
_________________________________________________________________________________________________

This time it was his opponent who seemed to slow down. The barrel of the Remington locked on El Lobo’s head. When he leapt as Hudson began to squeeze the trigger, the barrel of the shotgun tracked El Lobo effortlessly. Hudson exhaled. Maria punched his shoulder.

What came out of the barrel were not pellets. It looked like…iridescent smoke. Solid, iridescent smoke. A rainbow of colors shimmered through the vapor as it lanced sharply into El Lobo’s face. The smoke did not stab through the killer’s face so much as grab it and…twist. El Lobo’s momentum hit a wall as the rope of mist swirled around his face and jerked it to the side. Blood sprayed out to Hudson’s right, painting a nearby pillar. The smoke looped around and grabbed El Lobo’s face again. This time the smoke completely engulfed the killer’s head before jerking back suddenly, bringing the man’s head with it. The lycanthrope’s body seemed to hang in the air for a moment before he slid to the ground. The smoke dissipated as quickly as it had come, allowing the head to drop to the floor with a wet thud.

The cries of the wounded stopped cold. Even with the roar of the shotgun ringing in his ears, Hudson could hear himself panting and the fall of rain drops as they hit the window glass. He watched as blood flowed from El Lobo’s open neck. He could see ragged bone poking out, a stark white against the dark blood. When had it started raining?

As quickly as that, Charlie stood next to him. “Hudson!” Charlie shook his shoulder, “Hudson! Are you alright?”

Hudson looked down at the scattergun, faint wisps of purple smoke still trickling out of the barrel. “I reckon I’m a sight better than El Lobo. What the hell was in that shell?”

“Fuck if I know, man. If I knew, David wouldn’t be driving a Rolls and gouging us.” Hudson raised an eyebrow. “Ok, you.” Charlie looked around the room. The wounded cartel members had started to moan softly again, but the sounds were more human than they’d been before. “Nice shootin’ though.”

“Poor shootin’. When a cop breaks leather, he’s aiming to kill. All I did was wound.” Hudson looked at what was left of El Lobo. He hoped there was enough left to match dental records. “Well, mostly.”
_________________________________________________________________________________________________

A couple hours later Charlie was gone and Hudson was spinning fiction for a half a dozen Rangers, three or four HPD detectives, and even one Fed who’d showed up for some reason. As far as they were concerned, Hudson had set up a meeting with an informant – not Charlie – and stumbled on the ambush. The perps had had a hostage. Hudson had intervened. He shrugged when they asked what had happened to the big guy’s head after he shot him. He kept it simple.

Hudson nodded in the right places as his senior officer berated him for going to a late night meeting alone. He’d been chewed out before, and he could tell that the Captain’s heart wasn’t really in it. He’d had time to solidify his story before HPD had arrived, so he repeated it almost verbatim – not exactly the same, that always sounded rehearsed – as each one interviewed him. Hudson thought they did a pretty good job, in a professional sense, but each one kept sneaking glances around the killing floor. They appeared more awed by the story than suspicious. The headless man was particularly impressive it seemed. Hudson even found out that the man Charlie had slammed into the pillar had survived. The perp apparently wasn’t particularly talkative though.

The victim helped too. She had been so out of it that she’d never noticed Charlie or the strange shotgun blast. As far as she was concerned, Hudson had saved the day like the mythic Rangers of old. Hudson wanted to tell her that most of those ‘heroes’ had been little better than the rustlers and murders they chased, but it didn’t seem to be the right time. HPD got her bundled up and into an ambulance. Hudson hoped she recovered.

Finally, the scene had been taped off and most of the onlookers had left. HPD had bagged Hudson’s weapons and warned him not to leave town, but the senior investigator had told him, unofficially of course, that he should have them back by the end of the week. Hudson’s Captain walked him to his car.

“I’ll have to put you on leave. It was a fatal shooting, but it’ll be with pay. You can keep your badge. The forensics guys’ll have to go over your weapons, but I don’t figure you’ll have to give’em up for long. Pretty open and shut. We’ll getcha back on the job in no time.”

“Thanks boss. Mind if I take the cruiser home? Unless you want to give me a ride?”

“Go ahead. Go home. Get some sleep.”

“Thanks boss.” Hudson turned to walk to his car. His feet drug a little, but it was almost dawn after all. As he got to his car, the Captain spoke again.

“Hudson, hang on a sec. Meant to ask earlier. Where were you this morning? Got your text around ten, but it didn’t say much.”

Hudson kept his eyes on his key in the lock. Obviously the truth – that he had been negotiating with some sort of wizard to buy a `magic bullet’ so he could kill a cartel lycanthrope that had been planning to assassinate him based on a tip from another sorcerer – would never do. Well, not the whole truth anyway. “Had to go see a man about a gun, boss. Maria was acting a little squirrelly at the range the other day.” He looked back over his shoulder at the building. “Good thing I did too.”

“True enough. Take tomorrow off Pearce. I’ll see you on Wednesday.”

Hudson climbed into his cruiser. His gun belt flapped loosely on his hip. His shotgun rack was empty. Before tonight, their presence had been reassuring, a way to ensure justice prevailed when the crooks got rowdy. Now, as Hudson looked out into the night, what he felt was fear. Not the sharp edge of excitement he had felt before when he chased fugitives and cartel members. This was a child’s fear. A fear of the dark closet or monsters under the bed. Irrational, but pervasive. Fear that sprang from the unknown, except that now Hudson knew. He knew there were things that hunted in the dark and humans with power he did not understand. Ignorance wasn’t bliss when you knew enough to be scared, but not enough to protect yourself.

A car’s passing headlights illuminated the interior of the building. From his cruiser, Hudson could see the blood stain from El Lobo’s head on the concrete floor. Hudson smiled. He had learned one thing tonight he supposed. He had learned he could kill the monsters, if he had a little help.

Hudson started the cruiser and pulled onto the street. Charlie had a lot of questions to answer and he’d be visiting Mr. Ramsey again soon. Next time something like this happened, it was the monsters that were going to fear Hudson Pearce.

View
Cauldron Bubble: Session 2
Where They Encounter a Wise Old Person

David smiled as the kettle squealed. A cup of tea, Aziz manning the register, and a whole day alone in the workshop. He had two pocket watches to fix – simple gear replacements – and then he could spend the whole day searching for it. The artifact whispered to him. He’d recently acquired several trunks at an estate sale that contained a number of interesting journals. If he was lucky, one of them might hold the key to finding the artifact. Even if they didn’t, they’d tell him a lot of places where it wasn’t. He sipped his tea. All in all, a good day.

David’s musings were interrupted by a commotion from the front of his office. He heard Aziz, his assistant’s voice rising…

“Sir, no “food” is allowed in the shop. And, Mr. Ramsey is not entertaining visitors this morning. You may, of course, browse the wares, but the workshop is strictly off limits.”

“Listen, Register Jockey. I’ll eat my taquito wherever I damn well please,” Charlie mumbled around what David assumed was a mouthful of Whataburger. Vile American fast food, he thought, pointedly not looking at the trashcan beside his desk.

“More to the point, I’ve got bodies on the ground and I need David’s help. You tell him Charlie Harper and Hudson Pearce are here or so help me God I’ll shove this wrench so far up your ass…”

David swung open the door from his private workshop and stepped into his public one. He didn’t understand it, but for some reason his clients often enjoyed watching him work. They certainly did not understand the mechanisms, the intricate dance of gear, steam, and ingenuity that ran the antiques. They brought in perfectly serviceable Grandfather clocks, German cuckoos, pocketwatches, music boxes, wonders of the old world that needed nothing more than a little maintenance, and yet all they could muster was that most prosaic of complaints – it’s broke. As if the fault lay with the mechanism and not its owner. But however ignorant they might be, they seemed to take comfort in watching the repair process, as if their presence gave them some measure of ownership of the outcome. Delusion, but lucrative delusion, he supposed. In any case, he’d set up a small area of the shop as a public workspace, which he now entered.

“Charlie, still the very model of a modern petty criminal. What brings you to my shop this morning? And a good morning to you as well, Ranger Pearce. You seem to be out and about early this morning. Is this an official visit?”

“David, we need your help,” Charlie said.

“Well, if you’ve got a pocket watch or a clock I’ll be happy to take a look at it. Or maybe you’re a music box man, Charlie. One of those with the little ballerinas…”

“We’ve got at least two dead bodies, one kidnapped alchemist, and a half-vamp about to lose his shit.”

“Que?”

David glanced around. Aziz had been sneaking glances since he’d left his workshop, obviously eavesdropping, but he was half-deaf and all ignorant of the supernatural anyway. There was only one other customer, a rather short but stunning man sporting bright green hair browsing through the gears, but he’d obviously heard Charlie’s outburst as well.

“Gentlemen, why don’t you and your…companion, join me in the backroom for tea? Aziz, please mind the shop.”

“Of course sir.”

David shepherded the men into his sanctuary, paying particular attention to the short, ragged man that Charlie practically dragged through the door.

“Mi amigo, quieres un poco te?”

“Si senor. Muchas gracias.”

“Me too David. Listen – ”

David shut the door very softly and carefully. “No! You listen Charlie. I’m a clockmaker, not the bloody cavalry, and my shop is not the fucking Batcave! Whatever trouble you’ve gotten yourself into, this is a place of business and I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t come in hear shouting about murders and kidnappings.”

“Listen you Limey little twit…”

“Gentlemen,” Hudson said in the same tone he used when drilling rookies at the shooting range, “they’re may be larger issues here. Mr. Ramsey, I understand your irritation but we need your help.”

David sighed and dropped his glare with Charlie. “Please, call me David, Ranger Pearce. You paid retail.”

“Thank you and call me Hudson, but we need your help…and more of your…product.”

David took the kettle off the burner and poured four cups. “Tell me what happened.”


Charlie told the story quickly, leaving out some of the more grisly parts but managing to convey the gravity of the situation.

“So, let me get this straight. Diane has been kidnapped, likely by her sorcerous ex-bloke. Two kids are dead at the Cauldron, you’ve adopted a stray (“No delito, Javier.”/ “Que?”) and your first thought was to come here?”

“That’s about the long and short of it.”

David glanced down at the tea, now cool in his hands. He didn’t want to get involved with this. Diane was a good acquaintance. A scrupulously fair shop owner, she and David had exchanged clients over the years and maintained a cordial relationship. But this was a rescue mission and Charlie was talking about going up against a sorcerer with a grudge.

His feelings must have shown on his face. “Mr. Ramsey…David,” Hudson said, “We just need a little more ammunition. We don’t know what kind of weapons or help this guy might have. Your…ordinance is likely the only reason I’m still breathin’ right now. I hoped you might be able to help us improve our arsenal, so to speak.”

David looked at the three men across from him. Hudson, tall and resolute. Sincerity and duty radiated off him, but his hand had rested on pistol the whole conversation. Charlie, impatient and uncomfortable as always. He’d been eying the exit since he sat down and hadn’t touched his tea. And…Javier, though he appeared ragged, skittish, and smelled like a New York subway, seemed to be taking comfort in a cup of good English tea. The three of them looked worn, tattered. Scared but determined. They looked like many things. What he did not see was confidence. They did not look like heroes.

David rose and started grabbing items off the wall. “Alright Hudson, you will have your magic bullet. I made another after I heard about your…success with the last one, thinking such an occasion might arise.” He tossed the Ranger a shell casing striped with runes as he grabbed his pistol. It was based off a Collier revolver, if the old flintlocks had run off gears and magical steam. “It’s the only one I’ve got right now, so make it count.”

David slipped into his vest, dark green wool with brass buttons. It was like sliding into a familiar glove, lined with steel wool. He did so hate physical combat.

“Maybe we can talk the bloke down,” he muttered.

“What was that?” Charlie demanded.

“Nothing.” David spun the cylinder on his revolver. “But I’m coming with you. Tempus Rerum Imperator, gentlemen. Loosely translated, time waits for no man. A friend is in danger and I can assume, Hudson, that the local constabulary are unlikely to be up to the challenge?”

Hudson nodded.

“Then it falls to us, to ride to the rescue.” He slid his watch into his vest pocket. “Can I assume that one of you knows where the alleged villain lives?

Charlie nodded.

“Good then. Now, lo siento Javier, but will you be riding with us?”


Hudson pulled the cruiser into the driveway. Well, driveway might be a stretch. There was a break in the curb and what could generously be described as a yard. Hudson managed to find a spot to park.

Eric lived in a blighted part of town. Not blight in the over-exaggerated sense used by breathless pundits, but in the true sense of the word – ruined, desolate, diseased. For a block in every direction, the other houses were boarded up. Their walls were covered in graffiti. Yards were choked with dry grass and weeds. At least one car on the street had been left after it burned.

Eric’s house was little better. The yard was more dirt than grass, dusty and barren. The porch sagged, paint peeling from every surface, while the house overall exuded a sense of something just…off, like catching a whiff of sewer smell in the summer. Not uncommon in Bayou City.

Charlie threw open the door and came out of the backseat gagging.

“I hope this guy has a shower, because I’m not going anywhere else unless we shove Bum-Stench Gonzales here into it.”

“Tactful as always Charlie. Hudson, would it be possible to remove Javier’s shackles? I’m fairly certain I could convince him to stay with us.”

“Yeah, doesn’t look like he’s going to be a material witness.” Hudson had called in the Cauldron scene on his way here. He’d left out a few parts, like the thug in the backroom, the ensuing fight, and Javier, but it wasn’t settling well with him. Forensics – hell, any two-year beat cop with half a brain – was going to figure out a shotgun had been fired and someone had contaminated the scene. It wouldn’t take any great leap of logic to connect it to him or Charlie or Javier.

“Mi amigo, me voy a quitar las esposas. Tú te quedas con nosotros. Si?”

“Si, senor. Gracias.”

“De nada.” Hudson looped the cuffs onto his belt. “Charlie, ready for a little sneak & peak?”


Charlie crept forward as the others crouched near Hudson’s cruiser. As he approached the north window, he wondered again how he kept getting into these situations. Discretion wasn’t the better part of valor; it was the only freakin’ part. Yet here he was, sneaking up to peak into the home of psychopath.

He wasn’t sure what he expected when he looked into the house, but it wasn’t a man duct-taped to a chair sitting inside a magic circle. The man was bruised, bleeding and gagged, sagging against his restraints, lank hair hanging over his face. The circle was a complex one, with what looked like silver set directly into the floor, a variety of focus items at the cardinal points, mostly animal skulls from the look of it. The rest of the room followed a similar decorating theme, skulls and pentagrams and other wannabe warlock crap. Grandpa would have been so disappointed. The window to the south of the building showed a small bedroom and office, piled high with books, paper, and journals strewn about. Charlie snuck back to the group.

“The south room looks like his bedroom. There’s a desk in there with a bunch of books and stuff on it. There’s a man tied up in the north room, surrounded by a magic circle, with a bunch of Darth Wannabe junk piled around. Looks like warding and entrapment. Can’t tell anything more than that from here. Porch windows are boarded tight, can’t see a thing.”

“The hostage has got to be our first priority,” Hudson said. “And we can’t wait out here all day. Charlie, you head to the porch and the front door. David, you and I will cover Charlie from the north side. Javier, cuidado con su derecho por favor?” Javier nodded. “Thank you. Alright David, haul out that antique and let’s go for round two.”

Boards squeaked as Charlie slunk onto the porch. He slipped his wrench out of his pocket. If was going in, he was going in hot. A few more steps. More squeaks. He checked his six. Hudson and David were armed. Javier looked a little lost but seemed focused on the door. No time like the present. He reached for the handle…

The door splintered as the creature came hurtling out. All Charlie could see was a black blur. He was thrown to the porch, the creature atop him slashing. It had black fur, a muzzle, and looked to weigh about five-hundred pounds. Charlie tried to bring his wrench up, but there was no way he could stop the creature’s jaws coming toward his throat.

Suddenly the weight was flung off. Charlie rolled to his right to see Javier’s hands locked against the creature’s jaws, apparently holding them apart by main strength. The dog wasn’t going down easy. Its claws were slashing at Javier’s midsection.

Charlie blinked as he saw Hudson and David step simultaneously toward the porch and fire. Two quick shots hit the creature, one in the chest and the other in the skull. The creature staggered, claws lashing out, taking chunks out of the porch with each blind swipe. His wrench was still in his hand. “Cumhacht!”

A blast of force hurled the creature into the wall of the house. On impact it shattered into gallons of slimy gel. Perhaps unsurprisingly, several gallons landed on Charlie.

Hudson charged up the stairs. “Charlie, are you alright?!”

“Hudson, you’re about what? Six-two? Six-three? Maybe 210?”

“What?”

“What I’m saying is that next time we’re attacked by something that looked like the demented love child of a wolf and a javelina – ”

“It was a black dog,” supplied David. “Irish hunter spirit.”

“Whatever. Next time, you’re going first lawman.” Charlie heaved himself to his feet. “Let’s see if we can find out what’s going on here.”

The quartet crept through the door. The living room was largely bare. There was a sharp smell of burnt something in the air and a charred circle on the carpet. What there was in the room was old, ripped, crushed or all three.

“That door should lead to the hostage. Charlie, you’re with me. David, would you and Javier be so kind as to check Mr. McCullough’s bedroom and desk?”

Charlie pushed open the door while Hudson cleared the room with his pistol. Perhaps surprisingly nothing spectral, evil, or otherwise nasty jumped out at them. It was just a room. A room filled with bones, skulls, and a bound man inside a magic circle but just a room. Trashed and cluttered like the first room but nothing more. Hudson started to walk toward the bound man.

“Hudson, stop. We’re not sure what the purpose of that circle is. Give me a second to check it out.” Charlie started to open his third-eye. “Oh, and I’d stand back a bit.”

Charlie brought up his Sight and swept the room. The effect was staggering. Tendrils of bruise-purple mist floated up from many of the objects in the room and left a thick haze that swirled around the ceiling. Charlie shuttered and tried to focus on the circle. Inside he could see the man, physical wounds overlaid with mental ones. Cuts, deep gashes actually, dripped green fluid that never touched the floor. Bruises swirled with putrid yellow and green colors, creeping ever farther with each pulse. And around him, in line with the patterns on the floor, rose green tendrils similar to the ones he’d seen in the thug at the Cauldron.

Charlie tried to focus further, see the truth to the patterns of the circle. He could see the lines of spells that bound a mortal within the circle. Wounded as the man was, he couldn’t have left the circle if he wanted to. But there was something else woven within the entrapment spell, a warding. Charlie concentrated further. He needed to see what kind of ward. Repulsion, restriction, land mine? He just needed to see a little bit more…

“Charlie! Charlie!” He felt Hudson slap him. “Wake up.”

“I’m awake goddamnit. Quit hitting me.”

“You alright? See anything?”

“Will be in a sec and yeah, a little bit. The guy inside can’t get out, even if he wasn’t beat to shit. I can’t figure out the ward though. It could be anything.”

“How do we get by it then?”

“We throw something through it. It’ll break the circle easily enough, but I’m not sure what’ll happen after that.”

“But we can’t get the hostage out unless we break the circle?”

“Nope.”

Hudson stooped down and hefted one of the numerous skulls scattered around the floor. He tossed it experimentally a couple of times in his hand, while crouching in the corner of the room. “Hold on to your hat.”
____________________________________________________________________________
David watched as Hudson and Charlie disappeared into the north room. He glanced at Javier.

“Ves mi espalda?”

“Si senor. Usted es mucho mejor que Charlie.”

David chuckled. “Gracias Javier.”

David kicked open the door, mirroring Charlie’s tactics, his gun held before him. The room was empty though. Almost…wholesome compared to the rest of the house. The tacky skulls and pentagrams were still present, but the refuse was missing. The bed was made, the carpet relatively clean, and even if the desk wasn’t particularly well organized, it was at least tidy. And, he hoped, full of information.

“Javier, vigila la puerta por favor.”

David began to rummage through the papers on the desk. Most of it seemed to be spell calculations, mostly related to psychomancy. Otherwise known as mind control. Very, very dark grey, if not outright black, magic. It looked as if Eric’s descent had been quick. His older journals had been meticulously dated and written in a fine, precise hand. They chronicled the experimentations of a minor sorcerer with a talent for fine magical control and a bit of an ego.

The last journal chronicled something else. From the increasingly mad ramblings, Eric had moved quickly from increasing his own ability to persuade and influence, to the projection of phantasms, to injecting suggestions into peoples’ minds, and finally to outright enthrallment. Toward the end, Eric’s writing became jagged and angular, the pure rage easy to discern. On the last page of his most recent journal, dated only days before, Eric had sketched out a full ritual to achieve direct, fine enthrallment. With it, he could achieve full control over someone who wouldn’t even know they were controlled. The components were jotted in the lower corner, some of which violated the laws of magic on their own, much less being used in an enthrallment. In the upper corner, written in a bold hand and underlined were the words, “Buffalo Bayou. The Tunnels” above today’s date.

“Javier, ¿podrías por favor pásame esa bolsa? Gracias.” David started stuffing papers into the bag. They had the outline but they might need the details. Buffalo Bayou was a big place and “the Tunnels” was maddeningly non-specific. The date was clear though. There was an…there wasn’t any other word for it…evil ritual going down tonight. There was a reason David confined his talent to the creation of artifacts. Apart from the inherent beauty of their function and – let’s face it – his own limitations, his machines sidestepped most of the Laws. They were powerful, but they were tools, without an inherent morality to them. Nothing like this perverted rite.

As the thoughts passed through his head, the house shuddered. A pure wall of noise crashed into them. Javier staggered violently in the wall, and David was thrown onto the desk, while dust rained down from the ceiling. Shelves and bookcases crashed around them both.

David scrambled to his feet as the dusk settled, charging across the living room and into the north room, pistol drawn. Javier hot on his heels, he burst through the door into the north room. What he found was…destruction. Dust and debris still filtered down from the ceiling. In one corner a pile of books lay smoldering. Chunks of the wall had fallen to the floor, marring the circle. A large chunk lay across the wounded man. He finally spied Charlie and Hudson collapsed in the corner, coughing and choking. David scuttled over to them.

“Charlie! Hudson! Are you alright?”

Hudson coughed as he tried to push himself up, unsuccessfully. “Broke my hat.”

“What?”

Hudson crumpled his crushed Stetson between his fists. “Broke my hat. Loved this hat.”

“Alright, the Ranger is a little concussed, I think. Javier, por favor,” he said, pointing. Javier knelt beside the downed lawman. “Charlie, how about you? Feeling alright?”

“Never. Going. First. Again.”

“You’ll be fine. Javier, ¿Cómo es Hudson?”

“I’m fine David,” Hudson said, holding his crushed and partially burned hat. “I’d appreciate it if you’d make me a new hat though. Something in a felt Stetson, maybe, with some magical Kevlar lining? How’s the hostage?” he said, trying to rise.

“Stay down for a minute, Hudson. I’ll check on our captive.” David stepped cautiously over to the circle. He could feel the faint remnants of the explosive ward as he passed over the circle, but there seemed to be nothing dangerous left. As he bent down to check the victim, he held out little hope that the man had survived. Until he coughed violently, spraying flecks of blood everywhere.

“Buggering hell! He survived. He’s in awful shape but he’s alive. We need to get him a hospital. Hudson?”

“I can call in a bus, just let me get to my car.”

“Hudson, wait,” Charlie said. “You’re going to call in an ambulance, from your squad car, after what happened this morning? To a house where you broke and entered?”

“Well, technically, you did the breaking and entering, Charlie.”

“Shut up David. What I’m saying is that it’ll take time and there will be questions, and we’re no closer to finding Diane.”

“Actually, I managed to glean quite a bit from Eric’s journals. He’s planning a ritual for tonight involving fine, deep enthrallment. One assumes Diane will play a staring role. It’s supposed to take place somewhere along Buffalo Bayou in ‘the tunnels.’ Some of the passages mentioned a ley line.”

Hudson finally hauled himself off the floor. “Any better ideas as to where this is supposed to go down?”

“Unfortunately, our Evil Overlord did not leave a map with an ‘X’ on it. He’s taken Diane into tunnels somewhere near Buffalo Bayou to perform an enthrallment ritual. That’s what we’ve got.”

“I know those tunnels,” Charlie said. “We could wander through them for days without finding anything but angry strangers, emphasis on the ‘strange.’ Not too mention ghouls, doorways to the NeverNever, and probably death.”

Hudson glanced at the hostage. Charlie and Javier were busy cutting away the duct tape. “We need more information. Can you get anything out of that guy?”

“Hudson, it’s a miracle he’s breathing. I’m not sure how much we’ll be able to get out of him,” Charlie said.

Hudson sighed, “Then we need time. Time to call contacts. Time to get more specific information. Time to come up with a plan.” He pushed himself away from the wall, wobbly but upright. “Charlie, make the guy as comfortable as you can. There’s no way we can hide that someone was here, but we can at least stabilize him. There was a pay phone at that abandoned station on the corner. If it’s still working, we’ll call in a bus.” Everyone looked at him blankly. “An ambulance, civilians. Calls from my cruiser are logged and that’ll cause more questions and take too much…time.” Hudson sighed again, “I hate this supernatural bullshit.”

David put his hand on Hudson’s shoulder, “Trust me, I know exactly what you mean.”

They limped out of the house. Hudson leaned heavily on David. Charlie tried to not look like he was leaning on Javier. There wasn’t even a damp spot on the porch where the black dog had attacked. They piled back into Hudson’s cruiser. At the corner Charlie limped out to the pay phone, parroting the instructions Hudson had given him. As he climbed back into the car, they heard a distant siren.

“Time to leave folks, where to?”

“Someplace with a phone gentlemen, that’s not my workshop. We all have some calls to make. Someone in this town knows how to find this mind-stealing, kid-napping, bomb-laying arsehole. And one of knows that person. Any ideas?”

View
Cauldron Bubble: Session 1
The Cauldron Overflows

The magick cauldron sm2
Hudson’s hand massaged his forehead, the sunlight finally beginning to pierce his eyes as he turned left onto Montrose, heading toward the Cauldron.

He wasn’t worried. Really, he wasn’t. Administrative leave was standard after a fatal shooting, even for decorated Rangers. As per the cliche, there had been a riot and he had been alone. He’d been as careful as he could, and the Loco Lobo incident was as clean a kill as a law enforcement officer ever got. The perp had been armed, wanted in a dozen states (and at least three countries), and possessing a deadly weapon. Several, if you wanted to get technical about it. The security camera had shown the perp coming toward Hudson after he’d emptied “Max” into him at short range. Hell, the brass even let him keep his cruiser.

The funny thing was, the video also showed the Lobo going down only after Hudson had pulled his shotgun. A friend in Internal Affairs had leaked it to Hudson that it was obvious the perp had been hopped up on something. PCP, coke, whatever. The guy simply hadn’t felt a thing until Hudson’s scattergun broke through the haze…and the perp’s spleen. Hudson’s relief was tempered by the fact that “Maria” hadn’t exactly been loaded with conventional ordinance.

All of that was moot though. They might have him on administrative leave, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t still on the job. He was meeting Charlie at the Cauldron this morning, and he wasn’t leaving until he had a few more answers. Answers that didn’t start and end with crazy talk about “lycanthropes.”

It wasn’t until he stepped out of his cruiser that the scene truly penetrated. Broken glass on the patio. The door swinging from its hinges. Chaos inside the store. And muffled sounds of violence. Hudson ducked back into his car. When he stood up, he was loading “Maria.” The Lobo incident had clearly been nothing more than the last violent gasp of a drug-slinging junkie. He wasn’t feeding “Maria” her usual standard issue though either…


Charlie didn’t like going to meetings. He didn’t like waking up early, he didn’t like keeping to someone else’s schedule, and he sure as hell didn’t like meeting a freakin’ Texas Ranger for coffee at a place he’d once been caught shoplifting. Well, at least once. Maybe twice. Diane was an understanding soul. Anyway, at least he could pick up some more blown glass while he was there. The conjurings never turned out quite right with Pyrex…

As he pulled into the Cauldron, he saw Hudson holding the scattergun across the crook of his arm, slipping shells into the breech. Charlie recognized the ammo. He briefly considered rolling on past and heading to the 59 Diner. He had a few bucks in his pocket. More than a few, honestly. That variation on the Gypsy Drive-By had gone well last week, and he was set for a while.

Then he considered it again. And maybe a third time. Hudson was a tough guy. He’d taken down that Cartel gang a week or so ago all by himself, with maybe the slightest of ammunition-related assists from one Charlie Harper. A viscous, Cartel-supported lycanthrope with a gang of gun-wielding sycophants had come at him and Hudson had come out almost completely unscathed. Obviously, whatever had caused the broken glass and driven Hudson to pull out “Maria” was no business of Charlie’s. None at all.


Inexplicably, he found himself pulling into the parking lot next to Hudson’s state-issue. Hudson glanced over as Charlie exited the car.

“You in?” he asked.

“Diane’s a friend,” Charlie replied. “I’d have spent a lot more time in juvie if she’d been a dick about it. What’s the play?”

“How about you sneak your ass up there and take a peak inside?”

Charlie sighed. A reputation for stealth cut many ways. “You got my back?”

“Maria does.”

“Good enough.”

Charlie crept quietly to the door. It swung wildly by a single hinge, but he could see inside. Two bodies lay on the floor to the right of the door. Books were knocked off the shelves, displays had been pushed over, and merchandise was scattered all over a floor littered with broken glass. None of it distracted from the blood though. It was brighter and thicker than the kind you saw on TV, and it pooled around both of the bodies.

Hudson nudged Charlie with the shotgun. “Listen fool, worry about them later. Hear that?”

Now that Hudson mentioned it, it was obvious. There was a semi-hidden door to the other room of the Cauldron along the back wall. Charlie could hear the sounds of struggle coming from the open door.

“Round two, Charlie. Ding. Ding.”

“Screw that, you’re the cop. Your turn on point.”

Hudson nodded as he crept forward and peered through the storeroom door. As he did, he saw two men struggling amongst shattered glass and priceless scattered spell components. The one on the left wouldn’t have drawn a second look at a PTA meeting. Tan slacks, a white polo, and close-cropped hair, he could have been the Best Buy employee that sold Hudson a universal remote last week.

The man on the right was different. Obviously Latino, little more than rags covered his dark skin. His pants were worn. He was barefoot. His t-shirt had once been white, but wasn’t anymore, and a worn red stocking cap covered his tangled and matted hair. Most interestingly though, was that he was locked hands to wrist with the other man, trying to keep Mr. Business Casual from pointing a gun at his head. And succeeding, despite being about a foot shorter and maybe 75 lbs lighter.

Hudson brought the shotgun to his shoulder. There were live firearms present. The situation had to be contained.

“Drop the gun and get on the floor! Both of you! Now!”

Several things happened immediately after. The ragged man whipped his head toward Hudson, twisted his hips, and threw the other man through the air by his wrists. Directly at Hudson.

Hudson ducked, crouching and turning his side toward the human projectile. Thankfully, the thrown man missed him, slamming into the wall to Hudson’s left and rolling back toward the corner of the room. Less fortunately, the ragged man charged Hudson, slamming his shoulder into his gut and knocking him back through the door and onto his ass.

Charlie hadn’t been idle. He saw the man move, as fast as anything he’d ever seen. As soon as the ragged man was past Hudson, Charlie twirled his wrench into his hand and shouted, “Cumhacht!”

A gust of force staggered the man, throwing him against the back wall of the store and dumping him on the floor. Hudson hauled himself up off the floor, lowered his shotgun again, and flipped his badge out of his pocket.

“By the authority of the State of Texas, I swear to God, Allah, and at least 6 of those Hindu fuckers I will blow your goddamn head off if you don’t calm the fuck down!”

“And that’s just a taste of what I can do, Cochise. So why don’t you listen to me and the nice man with the shotgun. I’m a representative of the White Council and you best believe that you won’t be more than a greasy spot on the floor when we’re done with you.” Sparks and light danced around Charlie’s wrench. He briefly noted that there had to be more intimidating focus items.

As Charlie watched, the ragged man lifted his head. When he did, Charlie saw that his eyes were pure black. As the sun illuminated the man’s face, the black began to fade, leaving his eyes looking…normal. Well, slightly crazed and filled with tears but otherwise normal.

“What the hell?!”

“Give me a second Hudson, I think…”

The man spoke softly, “Que?”

“…he speaks Spanish.”

Charlie repeated his previous ultimatum in Spanish, receiving little more than tears and sobs from the ragged man who kept saying, “Ayuda me, mago. Por favor! Ayuda me. La sangre…” as he rocked back and forth.

“Charlie, you got an eye on this one?”

“Yeah man. Check the guy in the back.”

Hudson wasn’t a reckless man. You don’t survive as a Texas Ranger on the Mexican border for long if you’re reckless. Slow and careful. That’s how you reach retirement and collect a pension. That said, no one would expect a man who had recently been used as a human discuss to be standing. Much less standing and aiming. Much less standing and aiming and firing at a duly appointed officer of the law.

As Hudson dove to the floor, the pistol roared in the confines of the back room, a high caliber hand cannon. If the gunman had been trained, or at least slightly less concussed, Hudson might have rated a state funeral. As it was, the bullet merely clipped his right calf as he flew through the door onto the floor. “Maria” roared in response and the nicely dressed man’s jaw exploded, the pistol flying away as he was thrown into the back wall.

“Goddamn it Hudson, are you alright?”

“I’m fine Charlie. Best Buy’s going to need a new shift leader though.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Nothing. Is our guest still alright out there?”

“Depends on your definition of “alright”, but he’s not shooting at me."

“Good enough.” Hudson levered himself up off the ground and then broke open Maria’s barrel. She still had a shot left, but he thought it best not to take chances at the moment. He kept Maria trained on the downed gunman as he backed out of the back room.

He finally walked over to check the bodies. The first face was vaguely familiar to him, but he couldn’t put a name to it.

“Charlie, who is this guy?”

Charlie glanced over briefly at the body.

“Jordy Paige.”

Hudson moved to roll over the second body.

“Lynda Simmons. College kids. St. Thomas I think. Diane hired them to stock the shelves and serve coffee. Lynda could see spirits, I think. Jordy had a little kinetomancy. Always won at dice.”

Charlie grabbed the crouching, shaking man’s collar and dragged him to his feet.

“What the hell happened you motherfucker!? Talk or so help me God what the Vamps did to you will seem like a pleasure cruise!”

“Que?”

Hudson put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder. “He’s terrified man. I don’t think he hurt those kids. Both of’em have bullet holes in their chest and it doesn’t look like our friend here is packing. Why don’t you check the guy in the back? See if you see something I didn’t. Man hits a wall like that, he shouldn’t stand back up shooting.”

Charlie took a deep breath, nodded, and walked back toward the shotgunned man. Miraculously, he was still breathing. It was unlikely he’d ever eat solid food again, but his chest rose and fell weakly as he lay sprawled on the floor. There weren’t a whole lot of options for what he felt he had to do next. There were two dead bodies on the floor. Two kids he’d known, not well, but he’d known their names and the Cauldron reeked of their blood. Neither Jordy or Lynda had a key to the store. Diane, one of the few people who’d ever treated him fairly – not nice, but fairly – was missing, possibly hurt. It wasn’t time to be timid.

“Here goes.” As he said it, he unlocked his Sight. The Sight, the Third Eye, the Inner Eye, whatever you called it, it let practitioners see more than the mundane world. They could see the spirit world too. See it, perceive it, and keep it. Indelibly burned into their memory, as fresh as when it was Seen. And he was about to SEE a dying man.

What Charlie Saw wasn’t overtly terrible, more a sad waste. The man’s aura was roiling, pulses of purple and red, dark like bruises, came off him. Charlie could see his heart beat faltering behind his chest, rapid one second, slowly thudding the next. But it was his head that drew the eye. Dark green cables, ragged and somehow foul, wreathed his skull. The spiraled up tightly from just above his jaw – well, were his jaw had been – to the crown of his head. Spikes thrust inward every inch or so, driving into his brain, his psyche. Out of the holes dripped a sparkling silver fluid, making the man’s face a mask of shimmering light that did nothing to obscure the slow, pulsing rape of his mind.

Charlie came to himself collapsed on the floor, his shivering, huddled form an almost mirror image of the ragged man outside. He could hear Hudson still interrogating the man (properly in Spanish this time) in the other room, so he hadn’t been out long. He struggled to his feet and walked back to the main room.

“You look like shit.”

“I look better than anyone else in this building right now, including you. Find out anything from Homeless Rodriguez here.”

“Yeah, claims he was walking by when he saw three men drag a woman outside and throw her into a four-door truck. They took off north up Montrose. He “smelled the blood” inside from the two kids on the floor and came in. The guy in the back attacked him. Then we showed up. His name’s Javier, by the way. Any of that make any since to you, Charlie?"

“A little maybe. I think the guy is half-vampire. The black eye thing is something that happens to the Reds…”

“Reds?”

“Red Court vamps, I’ll explain later. Basically, the guy’s been half turned. Hey! Amigo…”

It didn’t take long to get more info out of Javier. He’d been a busboy at a cafe for about a year, just come over the border from Belize. He’d been grabbed after work one night, along with a few others. He’d been knocked unconscious, locked in a completely dark room, and, quote, “un montón de cosas raras que pasó.” Translation, “a bunch of weird shit went down.” He’d eventually broken out of the room to find himself in the basement of a hospital in the Medical Center. He’d been weak and hungry, but couldn’t figure out what for. He’d stumbled outside into the night, frightening at least a couple of nurses, and ran into the park. Before he’d been able to stop himself, he’d attacked a woman jogging along one of the trails, only stopping when the sun came up. He’d ran off, leaving the woman injured but alive, and lived on the street for the last week or so, consumed by a strange hunger.

“This guy’s nuts.”

“Probably, but he’s also been hit by the Red Court vamps. My guess is he’s half turned. Not a vamp yet, but he’s got some of their powers. I wouldn’t advise kissing him.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, Charlie.”

“Good. Anyway, the guy in the back has been mind-fucked. Can’t tell what they tried to do, but he was obviously enthralled. Javier said someone took Diane?”

“Some three people forced a woman into a truck. That’s about all we know.”

“Hey, Javier. ¿Qué hicieron los chicos parecen?”

“[Two of them looked like the guy that attacked me. Slacks, shirts, guns. The other one was in charge. Carried a big stick. Tall with dreadlocks. White though.]”

Charlie turned to Hudson. “Eric, Diane’s ex. They broke up a while back and he’s a pretty talented sorcerer. The guy in the back that you Gallaghered had been enthralled, and not gently. Takes a strong talent. I couldn’t do it. It also violates some of the Laws of Magic and I’m betting that Eric’s plans for Diane aren’t particularly wholesome either. I know where Eric’s house is. Let’s go.”

“What about him?”

“What about him, Hudson? He’s a poor sap who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The sunlight ought to tamp down his hunger. Let’s go.”

“Could he be dangerous?”

“Yeah, and so could one law-breaking sorcerer with a couple of thralls and a kidnapped shop-owner. Let’s go.”

“I’m not leaving a potentially dangerous material witness at an unsecured crime scene Charlie.”

“Hudson, God knows what Eric’s got planned. He wasn’t particularly stable when I met him last year. If he’s decided to escalate to mind-rape and kidnapping, Diane may not have a lot of time. And we really don’t have time to sit around and get involved in the investigation. Plus, he smells. No offense Javier.”

“Que?”

“Maybe not and maybe so, but I can’t leave him here.”

Five minutes later they were piled into Hudson’s cruiser, speeding north up Montrose toward the Heights and a sorcerer’s house. Javier was cuffed in back seat, secured behind bullet-proof glass. Charlie was twisted around from the passenger’s seat, eyes firmly locked on their suspect companion, mystical wrench at the ready. Hudson was behind the wheel, red light flashing, siren wailing, eyes fixed ahead as he speed through early Houston traffic.

A week out from a fatal shooting and here he was speeding away from the scene of a double-homicide with a half-vamp cuffed in the back of his car chasing after a “sorcerer.” He turned to Charlie.

“That guy really was a werewolf, wasn’t he?”

“The Lobo guy? Lycanthrope, but basically yeah.”

“At that guy’s a vampire?” he said, jerking a thumb toward Javier.

“Half, but yeah.”

“And we’re going to find a kind-napping, mind-twisting, dread-lock wearing wizard?”

“Sorcerer, but yeah.”

“I think Maria’s going to need a lot more non-standard issue.”

Charlie glanced at Hudson. “Take a left. Ramsey’s place is near the Galleria.”

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Welcome to your Adventure Log!
A blog for your campaign

Every campaign gets an Adventure Log, a blog for your adventures!

While the wiki is great for organizing your campaign world, it’s not the best way to chronicle your adventures. For that purpose, you need a blog!

The Adventure Log will allow you to chronologically order the happenings of your campaign. It serves as the record of what has passed. After each gaming session, come to the Adventure Log and write up what happened. In time, it will grow into a great story!

Best of all, each Adventure Log post is also a wiki page! You can link back and forth with your wiki, characters, and so forth as you wish.

One final tip: Before you jump in and try to write up the entire history for your campaign, take a deep breath. Rather than spending days writing and getting exhausted, I would suggest writing a quick “Story So Far” with only a summary. Then, get back to gaming! Grow your Adventure Log over time, rather than all at once.

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