DOLLARS, DOLLARS, DOLLARS.
So hard to find, almost as hard as finding another pureblood Caucasian. Other than himself, there were no more Caucasians, he was pretty sure; only mongrels, except for a few clusters of purebloods in Eastern Europe. So he’d heard, anyway.
“Locate dollars,” his brain said to his tecmate, which ran an instant search for concentrations of wealth in the vicinity. He hadn’t been able to afford an update in almost a year, and without it, his tecmate would eventually go silent. That would be bad. Tecmate expired, you expire.
A translucent compass dial appeared in his field of vision, pointing westward. The coords bounced a bit, first indicating a target less than a quarter mile away, then settling at almost half a mile—Park Avenue, he thought. Target might have been moving and then stopped. More likely, his clunky old tecmate was just on its way to winding down permanently.
How the hell had people existed before the implants?
Jack Turner: a year shy of forty, unemployed but for the occasional bounty he managed to collect. Nowadays, even johnlaw was too broke to pay up, and a few of the brigands he had brought in were free now. Bad news if they found him. Find him they would, too, since his tecmate’s biobarrier would shield him about as well as a food processor. He couldn’t afford to move somewhere else, either; there was nothing lower than this little corner of East Harlem.
The streets were busy for a Monday after dark, and good for him. Better hunting here than anywhere else in the city, since only the down-and-out and the wealthy stupid used cash money. Few wealthy stupid but lots of down and out here. And if his tecmate weren’t completely fragged, he’d find dollars two blocks ahead. Nothing there but some abandoned buildings and a tiny, unused park. Weird.
At Third Avenue, he paused for a few motor cars to grumble past, felt the crackle of electricity and whistling wind of the aeros as they zoomed overhead like big metal June bugs. A flock of teenage boys on powerblades swept around him, beyond fast, almost invisible, like supercharged specters, heading north, in the direction of the bridge. The lure of the whore, he thought. Irresistible, if you still had life in you.
Yeah, well, he didn’t give a shit.
He turned north, toward 120th. More abandoned buildings, more shadows. Fewer humans. The “park,” as it was called, was just a small bit of open space—maybe a couple of thousand square feet—where the trees and undergrowth had overtaken everything manmade. Dark. Dark as it could get in the city night.
Why the hell would anyone with dollars be in there?
Drug deal? He snickered. No such thing as drugs anymore. You just charged up your tecmate and rode the motherfucker. Some said there were still pharmaceuticals in the wild blazing nighttime, but if there were, they were so far underground that a mole would never find them.
An iron rail fence surrounded a well of pure blackness. He shoved the gate open, which made a sound like his old uncle drawing his last breath. Nothing to see within. A rustle of leaves and brush. His tecmate was all kinds of fouled here; just a gyrating compass needle in his field of vision that made him dizzy. But he knew was close.
Something touched his shoulder, and he spun wildly. A pair of luminous eyes was glaring at him, inches from his—wide and way too bright.
“What?” he growled, switching on his most menacing voice. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“Dollars,” came a deep voice, so full of bass he felt the vibrations. “You’re looking for dollars.” The voice rose and became sharper, mimicking the sound of his brain voice. “‘Locate dollars.’”
Was this character his target? He couldn’t make out any features in the darkness, nothing beyond the horrible gleaming eyes. Typical Fusion accent. Somehow, the man knew about him, his quest.
Something in his field of vision moved, and he realized the figure had lifted an arm to point into the darkness. As his eyes adjusted, he realized the man was big—very big—and wearing fine clothes. Stylish sweater, a scarf, and a fedora. Nothing beneath the brim but those luminous eyes.
As he gazed after the pointing finger, he saw something glittering in the murky, ambient light from the street. Something big and gnarled-looking, gleaming oddly in the darkness. Unable to help himself he took a few steps toward it.
It was gold.
It was gold.
Nothing else looked like that.
His failing tecmate refused to respond but for a brief flicker, which highlighted the shape long enough for his eyes to absorb the sight of it.
Twelve feet tall, it had to be. Stylized, even abstract. A caricature of a human—maybe—but with an oversized, grotesque head, with strange, tendril-like protrusions where the face should be; a pair of broad fins, or wings maybe, running lengthwise down the back of its elongated torso. All gold, its burnished surfaces reflecting the distant, hazy city lights. It looked alive.
“Dollars for you,” came the deep voice, and Turner felt the presence of the man behind him. Not threatening, but invading his personal space.
“Back away,” he said. “What is this? What the hell is this?”
“Your target. Maybe?”
He took a few steps toward the towering gold beast, which seemed to possess a brilliant inner fire, and he swore he felt waves of heat rippling over his body. All awareness of the strange man fell away as a strange ecstasy overcame him, a sense that this massive, impossible construct of glittering metal was somehow sentient.
He reached forward and laid a hand on the smooth metal—which felt warm and silky, almost wet, beneath his fingertips. As he slid his hand over the finely sculpted surface, a sudden, stabbing pain in his forefinger made him jerk his arm back, and he realized his finger was bleeding. Profusely. He glimpsed a shiny black stain on the golden surface where he had touched it.
“Son of a bitch!” He wiped his finger on his pants and leaned closer to peer at the gleaming gold skin. There. A thorn-like spine protruding from the otherwise smooth surface. As he studied the bizarre contours, he realized the thing was covered with them—hundreds of little metallic spurs with needle-sharp tips, as if designed for defense. Defense against what? This damned thing should not exist, not in this little park, not anywhere. Where the hell could it have come from?
He spun around, his eyes questing in the darkness for the big man. It took several moments to discern the impeccably attired, elephantine shape standing next to a tangle of foliage near the iron fence. “Hey,” Turner called. “What is this thing? Tell me about it.”
The stranger said nothing further, and Turner spun back around to stare at the golden beast. His finger throbbed, and he reflexively slipped his hand into his pocket to apply pressure against the fabric. He touched something wrinkled, coarse, and dry. He knew what it was, but he knew it shouldn’t be there. Couldn’t be there. He closed his hand around it and withdrew it from his pocket.
A ten dollar bill. Old—like all cash money—dirty, blood-streaked, and faded, but real. He hadn’t had a bill of any denomination in so long he’d all but forgotten what one looked like.
What the glorious fucking goddamn?
He heard a hoarse bark behind him and turned in time to see the silhouette point at him and then, with astonishing speed, disappear through the gate to the street.
“You! Fat man!”
He didn’t want to leave the statue, couldn’t leave it—it was gold, for God’s sake! What about those spurs? Could he break some of them off—enough to comprise a respectable sum? He reached for the statue again, this time very carefully, until his fingers fell upon one of the sharp projections, and he gripped it gingerly and tugged. Fixed fast; maybe with a tool of some sort he could trim it off. He let go of the spur, but he must have let his finger drag over its edge, for again he felt a fiery jab in his flesh, and he cried out more in frustration than pain. He shoved his hand back into his pocket, swearing under his breath at his ineptness.
He touched the crumpled paper in his pocket—and realized something was different. Thicker. Smoother. Somehow, he knew what he would find. Pulling out the contents of his pocket, he discovered another blood-streaked ten dollar bill. That hadn’t been there before either.
“Messed up, messed up,” he whispered to himself. This time when he touched the statue, he intentionally found one of the thorns and pressed his hand against it, ignoring the hot spike in his flesh. He peered closely at the fresh black stain on the metal, and he watched in surprise and awe as it slowly shrank to a dark pinpoint and finally disappeared—as if the golden skin had absorbed it.
This time, he found a twenty in his pocket.
More blood, more cash money.
With this, he could hop an aero down to the East Village and buy a drink. No answers there, to be sure, but it had been a long time since he’d had a decent glass of gin. Or better yet, scotch.
He reached for the statue, slapped his hand against one of its smooth curves, and let it drag until one of the spurs caught his palm and opened his flesh.
Another twenty in his pocket. The stuff was still legal tender, even if it was bad news. He even had enough of it to buy the fat man a drink, if he could find him again.
What the fuck did they mean his tecmate couldn’t be updated?
He could certainly afford updates now, but much to his shock, his tecmate was just plain dead—or had somehow been blocked from receiving the datastream. How the hell could he get blocked? He’d heard of it had happening once to a fellow fugitive-recovery agent who’d brought in a rogue, high-ranking government official. But that was years ago, and he had never done anything like that. This was grim, grim, grim. Still, not necessarily an insurmountable situation, if you knew the right people in the hierarchy. He didn’t, but Felix might.
Felix Callander: the closest thing to a friend he’d known in his adult life. One of the working poor, like he used to be, but loaded with connections and always thirsty. Felix ran in different—important—circles, and Turner could learn things from him.
“Hell no, you can’t make things appear out of nowhere, not even with uber psych mods,” Callander offered. “Now, I’ve heard on the pipe that a few betacorpers have learned to use their tecs to move things. You know, little things. Nothing big. You have to know how to focus your energy.”
“Ever seen anyone do it?”
Callander looked incredulously at him. “I think it’s a load of shit. Why you asking me, anyway?”
Callander took a long slug of his tequila. He didn’t look comfortable sitting in a semi-respectable dive bar in Midtown, not in the company of someone who paid only with cash. “What’s happened to your hands, amigo? Brigands get the better of you?”
A noncommittal shake of his head. “Just been working.”
“Obviously turning some dollars. You sure look wired, though. And those cuts are bad.”
Turner glanced around the bar, a cozy little joint called Bitters, dimly lit and reasonably quiet, with only a smattering of patrons, most sitting in dark isolation, absorbed in communion with the world via their tecmates. Then…there. Outside the small, grimy window that faced Park Avenue. The big man again, eyes beneath the fedora peering in at him. The huge head nodded, then abruptly vanished.
Constantly now, ever since Turner had found the statue: the big man showing up for a second or two and then disappearing. Never lingering or offering an opportunity to exchange words. Turner had lain in wait for him near the golden beast a few times—in vain, of course. The stranger appeared at his own whim. Like a fucking ghost. A fucking fat ghost.
Yeah, and what was the nod for? Tacit approval for Turner bleeding himself dry and refilling his veins with alcohol?
“Yeah, I saw him,” Callander said, clearly having witnessed Turner’s brief visual exchange with the man. “Captured his face, what I could see of it. He a brigand?”
“You got his face?”
“Yeah, but he’s wrapped up in that scarf. I’d shoot the image to you if you could use your tecmate.”
“I was hoping you could help with that.”
“Sit down and shut the fuck up.”
Turner’s heart sank. “Seriously. I don’t know anybody else.”
“You think I got connections like that? I wouldn’t do that for somebody I gave a shit about.”
“What about fat man? Can you ID him?”
“Nothing’s coming up.”
It had to be the big man blocking him. If he could be responsible for a gold statue that turned blood into money, he could damn well jam Turner’s tecmate. This all reeked of some dark intrigue that specifically target him. Of course he had enemies. Anyone who’d been in his line of work had his fair share. But to the last soul, every brigand he had ever turned over had been small time, unconnected to people or systems that could worm their way into his electronic sphere. Hacking was an all but dead art; there wasn’t anybody who didn’t leave a unique footprint in the system. And if you broke into the system and left your footprint, bye-bye you. Forever.
Callander was obviously leery of leaving footprints—with good reason. A few of the fish he had snagged were prize-winning.
Turner gave his companion a long, thoughtful stare. He was itching to share his discovery, which to now had been his and his alone; no other soul ever ventured near that dark corner of the park. He knew he shouldn’t…he couldn’t…but somebody had to know its secret, how it could exist. Callander had his circuits in everything. He might protest, but if he didn’t know something about anything, he sure as shit knew how to find out.
Turner couldn’t keep bleeding himself forever. His left hand was infected.
The fat man had nodded.
“Come on,” he said, dropping a pile of bills on the counter. “I’ve got something to show you. You gonna like it.” As he rose from his seat, he noticed the grizzled barkeep eyeing the money as if it were a heap of steaming shit. The old man didn’t reach for it until Turner and Callander were on their way out the door.
“You keep paying in cash, they gonna take you for a brigand,” Callander said. “You got no tecmate, so how you gonna prove you not a brigand?”
He didn’t bother to answer. They dodged a cluster of standers on the moving sidewalk and fell into a brisk walk in the stationary lane, heading north. With his tecmate as dead as a cinder, he couldn’t even hook in to take advantage of the city’s most meager city transportation service, and Callander sure as hell wasn’t going to pay. Once they got up to 42nd Street, half a dozen blocks north, they could find an aero that accepted cash money.
“Hey, isn’t that your man?”
“Over there,” Callander said, pointing across the avenue. “Fat man alert.”
Sure enough. The figure was unmistakable, striding up the sidewalk like a human grizzly, one end of his violet scarf trailing from his thick neck like a fluttering banner. As he reached the corner at 37th, he turned, the eyes beneath the hat’s brim as brilliant the golden statue itself. The huge head bobbed up and down—another approving nod?—and then, with shocking speed, the man vanished again.
He must have stepped onto the moving lane.
At 42nd Street, Turner flagged an aging, foul-smelling aerotran and fed a stack of bills into its meter, which accepted them with a dry groan, as if it had indigestion. He gave it an address near the park, which it barely understood—most riders just mentally fed it the fare over their tecmates—and it whisked them up into the fast lane, five stories above the road. Three minutes later, they were disembarking at the corner of Third and 120th. Callander hadn’t said squat the entire time, and now just stared at the sidewalk as they trudged toward their destination.
His eyes would light up soon enough.
They slipped through the iron gate and wandered back into the darkness, which was bereft, as always, of any other human presence.
“You’re shitting me, right?” Callander said. “We gonna dine with rats?” But something had caught his attention: something that gleamed in the dim, filtered light from the street. He took a few halting steps toward it. Turner couldn’t see his face, but he almost heard Callander’s jaw hit the ground.
“I want to know,” Turner said, his voice a coarse whisper, “what this is. How it got here. How it does what it does.”
“What does it do?”
Without an inkling of what he was doing, he grabbed Callander by the back of the neck and, with all his strength, shoved him forward, smashing his face into the golden beast’s torso. A sickening crunch, and black blood was spraying over the gleaming surface, a strangled cry escaping Callander’s throat.
Turner immediately released him, reeling in shock at what he done.
He hadn’t intended this to happen.
Why, why, why, why, WHY?
Callander’s body slid to the dank concrete at the statue’s feet, his eyes rolling up to gaze into Turner’s in disbelief, reflecting Turner’s own internalized question.
On the ground, the edges of several bills peeked around Callander’s sleeve.
“That is why.”
Callander’s eyes followed his gaze; registered brief comprehension. Then they closed.
For a second, Turner froze. Callander might have just captured his image. If johnlaw were to process the final cell files of his tecmate….
Nothing he could do about it now.
He glanced upward and, in the dim light, saw the jagged, barbed spines protruding from the statue’s flanks. They were longer than before. Bigger.
“I didn’t mean to,” he mumbled, doubting that Callander could hear him. “I didn’t mean to.” He knelt and gazed at his friend’s ruined face. The flesh of his forehead and cheeks had been shredded, and blood was running in thick rivulets onto the pavement. Callander’s jaw hung open and his chest heaved as he struggled to breathe.
Turner lowered his hand to his friend’s face, felt the warm slickness spreading onto his fingers. He rose, went to the statue, and wiped his hand on the hot, burnished metal.
He actually felt a shifting in his trouser pocket.
He went back and forth between his bleeding friend and the statue a dozen times. By the time Callander stopped breathing, Turner had almost a grand in his pocket.
He never saw the fat man watching him from the gated entrance, but he felt the hot, approving gaze like a pair of twin suns on his back. Like a cataract of blood pouring down on him from out of the darkness.
When he turned to leave the park, he knew that Callander’s body wouldn’t be there later.
In fact, by the time he made his way out through the iron gate, he was pretty sure it was already gone.
Tecmate, final images, blood, bone, and all.
He inquired of a couple of tech engineers he knew, but they assured him there was nothing they could do to help him—not if his tecmate had been blocked by the Central Nerve. And if it had simply expired, his only option was to have it replaced, which would cost more blood than his brain could ever conceive.
Additional complication: if the implant wasn’t dead, and an unknown party was actually jamming it, then attempting to replace it would almost surely be fatal.
You just didn’t fuck with a live tecmate.
But without it, his remaining days were diminishing, and quickly. You could live on cash money for a time, but only brigands never converted it. Use enough bills, someone was going to come looking. Someone who did what he used to do. Without his electronic life sphere, in the technoworld, he was deaf, dumb, and blind. Anyone offline was suspect. He’d never get an honest job. He couldn’t even shield his biosignal against the brigands who would seek him out—and there were plenty: those he himself had tracked down and given over to johnlaw.
For doing what he was doing now.
Even his landlord, no saint, would turn him over if he used paper dollars too many times.
Eventually, someone would miss Callander, but for now, anyone who knew him would figure he’d taken an extended holiday with his cups.
Turner would have to keep getting by on blood money while he weighed his options.
It was fair fortune that saved him from having to shed his own blood yet again. A teenage boy—one of the disgusting, apelike mongrels from Third Ave.—came flying up the street on his powerblades, oblivious, as usual, to passersby on the stationary walkway. The kid was going too fast; they always went too fast. Too late he saw Turner stepping out of the shadows. He swerved to avoid the collision and then overcompensated. With a sickening thud-skid-crunch, he hit the brick siding of the nearest building, ricocheted, and went down hard some thirty feet from the park gate. Turner rushed to the sprawled body, grabbed hold of the kid’s jacket collar, and dragged the moaning, writhing twit through the open gate, where he knelt to examine the damage in the glow of the nearest streetlight.
He felt a violent twisting in his groin. The teenager’s dark, brutish face looked as if someone had taken a cheese grater to it. Blood oozed thickly from concrete-flayed skin, his bulging eyes glowing like supercharged cel-lamps beneath heavy brows. His lower lip quivered as air came and went in ragged gasps, his lungs clearly pierced by fragments of shattered ribs. Not much longer for the living. Then, to Turner’s surprise, the kid’s eyes briefly registered awareness and swiveled toward his. With a low curse, he ducked back into the shadows, fearing the boy might be trying to capture his last moments for posterity. But then the boy’s breathing hissed to a stop, and his dilated pupils remained black. No sign he might have activated his tecmate’s lens a final time.
Turner set to work and made almost two grand.
When he left the park, twenty minutes later, the body was gone.
The fat man’s shadow wormed its way under the iron fence and paced him until he turned the corner at Third to head back to his place.
Great. Just fucking great.
Barkeep wouldn’t even sell him a drink for paper dollars anymore. No one carried so much cash money and never converted it. Johnlaw would notice him soon, if not already.
He needed his goddamn tecmate.
Out in the street, the temperature had plummeted. Winter was on the way, and he didn’t even have a decent coat. He could afford a dozen coats, but buying one meant risking cash. Again.
Well, there were other bars. One of them, surely, would accept his paper payment.
But how long before he wouldn’t even be able to buy food?
“Looking for a drink, amigo?”
He stopped in mid-footfall. Coarse, distinct Fusion accent, more than a little familiar.
“You got money to pay, don’t you?”
No sooner had he turned to face his old quarry than he felt something in his head vibrate, and his vision blurred and went dark. Stun charge. His body gave way beneath him, but the impact on the concrete was just a gentle jarring, as if a careless pedestrian had bumped into him.
He dimly registered a pair of hands slipping under his arms, taking hold, and pulling his body into even deeper darkness, but his brain and his extremities no longer communicated. A vague fear began to pulse out of the void inside his head, but no clear images or memories came forth. No way to comprehend or resist what was happening to him.
Something was encircling his body—something warm and slick. Something alive, he thought. A brief flash of rational thought, and he realized he was being bound with organic constrictors: polymer cords that responded to specific individuals—meaning that only the person who wielded them could set him free. A blowtorch wouldn’t cut through the things. Sensation was beginning to return, and with it, roiling up from his guts, icy cold fear.
“I’ll pay you,” he muttered.
“Cash money, right? I don’t deal in cash, Señor Turner. Not anymore. You caught me that way, no? Gave me to johnlaw. A very bad time for me.”
“Where am I?”
“Away,” came Cuccillo’s voice. “Just far enough away.”
He heard a harsh, whining, grinding sound.
Some kind of powered blade.
“What do you want?”
“Want? I want your blood, what the fuck you think I want?”
A shadow fell over him, and the older man’s features materialized in his field of vision. Grizzled and scarred. Brilliant turquoise eyes. Broken teeth. A hard face. An abused face. Cuccillo had suffered in prison.
He, Jack Turner, was responsible.
“You chose your way,” Turner said with a groan. “Just did my job.”
“Not much of a line of work, you ask me.”
Something slid into view—something long, narrow, gleaming, and quivering. Carving blade. Cuccillo lowered it toward his face.
“Wait. No, wait.”
“Sorry, amigo, no time to parley. Say adios.”
Not a chance. Terror swept up from deep inside, overwhelming him, swallowing him, because Cuccillo meant every word he said.
“Eh?” Cuccillo paused, and Turner saw the older man’s head turn to glance behind him.
Another shadow fell over both of them, and suddenly Cuccillo was screaming. The whine of the blade dulled, and something hot and wet gushed over Turner’s face and neck. Then came the sounds of scuffling, and his tormentor’s silhouette swept out of his field of vision. Now he could see only a dull, featureless ceiling. Cuccillo’s agonized voice became a shrill, ringing dirge of horror and hopelessness. Turner felt as if he were floating in a river of hot blood.
Abruptly, the screams ceased, and the warm bonds encircling his body fell away. Maybe because Cuccillo was dead, he didn’t know. His muscles remained frozen, and he could barely turn his head to take in his surroundings.
All he saw was a pair of leather-booted feet.
“Up with you!”
The fat man, his voice jovial.
“Up, I say. You have an appointment.”
“An appointment! Up! Up we go.”
He felt his body rising from the floor, though he knew, he knew, that no human hands were lifting him.
It was dark, and he couldn’t see a thing—certainly not the gold behemoth—but he knew he was in the park. He could smell it, feel it. He didn’t know how he’d gotten here. Last he remembered, Cuccillo had been about to carve him into bits, and then the fat man had intervened.
The bastard had saved his life.
He was standing upright, but he didn’t know how. His muscles felt like jelly. He was still covered in blood. Cuccillo’s blood.
His eyes reflexively turned toward the voice but could make out only shadows.
“Who are you?”
“My name is John Hanger. Well, for the past few centuries. Before that, I had other names.”
“Before, I was a king. Now, I am merely a caretaker. A custodian. But it pays well. In years, as you may see.”
“What you want with me?”
“Me? Nothing. But you have a role to play—as do I—in the long, long story that has led me here.”
“Enough! Enough of the tiresome questions. You’re here because you are an outsider. The human system has rejected you. I have facilitated your part in this story because I was required to. More than that you don’t need to know.” The big man chuckled. “Amigo.” The voice was closer now.
“I would like to leave.”
“You will. Soon enough.”
He felt warm breath at the back of his neck, but before he could turn around, a pair of strong hands grasped him by the shoulders and shoved him forward. He nearly toppled, but Hanger’s iron grip kept him upright. He could see a glimmer of golden light in the murky darkness ahead, and Hanger was propelling him toward it.
The beast seemed bigger, more sentient than ever. Its burnished surfaces oozed molten heat, casting a pool of hot red light on the pavement around it. The thorn-like quills covering its body had grown longer, more profuse—potentially lethal to one who stumbled into them. Hanger’s hands were still thrusting him forward, toward the multitudes of little spears, and his bemusement shifted toward alarm. He tried to dig his heels in against the force at his back, to no avail.
“Wait. What are you doing?”
“Your appointment, sir.” Hanger’s voice lilted in mock deference.
Then he was free of the powerful grip, but his momentum was carrying him forward, straight toward the outstretched, taloned, quilled arms of the golden behemoth. No! He was going to be impaled on those hellish-looking spines!
He reacted the only way he could: by pitching himself sideways, forcing himself to fall. But he came down hard on his right arm, which bent backward with a horrible popping sound, and an electric bolt of agony arced up to his shoulder. He cried out in shock, finding himself only an inch from a face full of sharp golden quills. He pulled himself backward, gritting his teeth against the pain in his arm and shoulder. For a long, nightmarish moment, he expected John Hanger to reach down and finish what he had begun, but the big man appeared to have accomplished his intended chore. He stood back with arms crossed, the brilliant eyes beneath the brim of his fedora studying him with what Turner took to be satisfaction.
“You piece of shit,” he growled. “You busted my fucking arm!”
Hanger said nothing, just stared at him, eyes inhumanly bright. Turner felt a peculiar, warm sensation at the back of his neck, like a strong, suctioning current of air, and a second later, something wet hit him in the eye. He wiped it away and snarled another curse, anger surging up and burning away his fear—until he glanced back and saw what was actually happening.
The still-wet blood that covered his body—Cuccillo’s blood—was running off his clothes and skin, slithering like crimson worms toward the feet of the golden monster. As they made contact with the metal, the streams of liquid turned inky black and melted into the gleaming metal flesh, sending up curls of smoke that smelled like burning tar.
John Hanger’s voice wrapped around him like a giant snake. “You are an outsider, Mr. Turner, cut off from the world of men. You have felt yourself falling away, becoming more and more isolated. You have tasted hopelessness. You have become a void crying out to be filled. Thus, you are the chosen vessel.”
Something touched his right wrist, and he jerked it away, sending a new bolt of agony through his fractured arm. Before he could even turn his head, a new, piercing pain in his spine drew a scream from his lips. Then he saw it—one of the long, talon-tipped arms, moving of its own accord, reaching for him, some of the long quills dripping blood. His blood. The damned thing was animate, alive, clearly intending to rip him to shreds.
His eyes rolled toward John Hanger’s. “Please. Make it stop. You can stop this thing. I know you can.”
“Why stop it now? It called to you, and you came. Time and again.”
“What do you mean?”
“Dollars. Locate dollars. Dollars!”
Now something slammed into his back, the impact forcing the air from his lungs, and only after the shock of the blow began to subside did he realize that a hellish number of the spines had penetrated his flesh.
They were moving.
Burrowing into his body, deeper, deeper, and deeper.
All of Cuccino’s blood was gone, consumed by the thing. It was now after his blood.
Somehow, his body was rising from the ground. He saw John Hanger’s shadowed face, the bright eyes gazing at him, first from below, then at eye level, and then from above. Was the thing lifting him?
No. He was standing upright.
Before his eyes, his crooked right arm was straightening, painlessly. In fact, he felt no pain—nothing—anywhere, despite his awareness of the spines penetrating his body, passing through his ribs, into his chest cavity. If anything, there was a vague heat surrounding him, like the warmth of a sunlamp.
Something was taking shape in his vision, something behind…or beyond…the fat man’s silhouette. Shapeless it was; a black hole in the night, shifting, swirling, seething. His eyes rolled upward, and he saw stars. There had never been stars in the New York night. No; these were not the stars he would have known in his pitiful human lifetime. These were stars from some other place, some other space, far beyond any dimension he could have imagined.
How did he know these things? What was he seeing?
He looked down and saw his old clothes falling away in shreds. His skin was black. Pure, unblemished, onyx black. His right arm, no longer broken, rose smoothly before him, and he regarded his hand. Long, narrow fingers, slightly sharpened nails. Perfectly sculpted. All perfectly black.
He turned to regard the golden beast. The thing had melted into a diminutive, unidentifiable husk and lay cooling in the mosaic of shadows. As withered as the remains of his old human soul.
He gazed around him, and saw the park, the streets, the buildings; the city. He saw through it all, into space, and through space itself, into its darkest corners, and he recognized the things that lurked out there. He knew them, and felt them, and could commune with them.
He, who had lost the use of his tecmate, was now their tecmate, their link to this world, which they had once inhabited and ruled. He was their harbinger. Their messenger.
He had come again.
Soon, they would come again.
He lifted one foot and stamped it on the ground. The concrete cracked, and the crack spread and wound its way toward the insignificant figure standing before him in the darkness. It stopped just short of the fat man’s feet.
John Hanger. The ancient human, who had once borne the name Balak. The old king who had worshipped him. Now a custodian.
Hanger served a purpose. He had brought him the blood he needed. He could be useful.
The custodian bowed his head, his eyes no longer brilliant.
“At your service,” he said, and held up a crimson robe to clothe his master.
Nyarlathotep took it, dressed himself, and then lifted his head to the sky. From his onyx lips a long howl gushed forth, and all over the city, windows shook. A few streetlights went out. Some people screamed, not knowing. Soon enough they would know.
He straightened himself and stepped into the night, his little minion behind him.
Stephen Mark Rainey is author of the novels Balak, The Lebo Coven, Dark Shadows: Dreams of the Dark (with Elizabeth Massie), The Nightmare Frontier, and Blue Devil Island; over 90 published short stories; five short-fiction collections, including Other Gods and The Gaki and Other Hungry Spirits from Dark Regions Press; and several audio dramas based on the Dark Shadows TV series, which feature many of the original cast members from the hit ABC TV series. For ten years, Mark edited Deathrealm Magazine, which won numerous awards for its superlative horror fiction, art, and poetry; and he has edited several anthologies, including Song of Cthulhu for Chaosium and Evermore (with James Robert Smith) for Arkham House. Mark lives in Greensboro, NC, and is an avid geocacher. Visit his website at www.stephenmarkrainey.com.
Story illustration by Nick Gucker.
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