© 2005 Joseph Armstead
The rain fell cold onto his feverish face and against his eyes as he looked up into the sky. The intermittent breeze rushing across his body made the evening feel cooler than it should, yet a sickening heat suffused his body. He was hurt. Bad. He was lying on the wet ground and he felt hard grit and stones under his back. The night sky was blurry, swimming with dark spots and flashes of white and red and he knew that the onset of awful pain was only a heartbeat away.
He wondered how many times he had been shot.
A pair of faces came into view from his dwindling peripheral vision. Male faces, possessing very similar features. Hardened faces reflecting the animal natures of the men standing over him.
Damn. He wasn't going to make it this time. His luck had run out.
Hazards of the trade...
"You can take this as personally as you'd like," one of the men said harshly. "You were an arrogant, disrespectful, elitist shit and how the Mustached Petes ever put up with your crap for as long as they did amazes me. You're talented, but not that talented. Personally, I think this was long overdue. You had it coming..."
Marcus, he thought dizzily, that was Marcus. The control freak, the ambitious one, the brains.
"Well, I'm not one to speak ill of the dead," the other man said. The speaker was Marcus's brother. It was getting harder and harder to concentrate ... his focus kept drifting to other days, other times. What was the man's name again? Oh yes, it was Carmine. A classic crime boss name. A cliche. Carmine was the aggressive one, all anger, street hunger, and pride. Macho asshole. Born to be a triggerman. Carmine's oily baritone broke into his jumbled reverie. "Times are changing and the old order is no more. There's a new kingdom being built now, our kingdom, and you should have shown more loyalty, should never have gone behind our backs. You thought you were untouchable. You know better now, don't you, bitch? Frankly, watching you bleed is the most fun I've had all week."
Their voices began to fade. Time felt like it was slowing to a crawl.
A shock ran through his mind as he realized he couldn't feel his body any more.
"We'll leave you to your dying now," Marcus sneered. "And after that, we'll have some of the boys clean up your mess. No more police, no more district attorney, no more of this turning state's evidence bullshit. We'll get back to business without any more interference from you."
Carmine leaned in closer and his face loomed as large as a mountain, yet the man's features were gray and indistinct. Damn, it wouldn't be long now....
"When you wake up in hell, tell Lucifer he's behind on his payments and the Rodriggo brothers want him pay up. Hell ain't his anymore. It's ours, it's all our territory. Tell him to drop off what he owes here, in Mandrill Park, the last place you drew a living breath. You think you can do that, you disloyal jackoff?"
Marcus snickered and said, "Let's go. He's almost gone. Hey, asshole, have a nice death."
And so, without another word, they left him there to die, in the mud and the litter and the rain in Mandrill Park, on the edges of Ninjatown.
Punk assholes. They got lucky with the ambush. Neither of them had the talent or the stones to face him one-on-one. They'd never have taken him if they hadn't been such sneaky, lying pukes. Lousy pack animals. Needed a small army to bring him down. Cowards.
When his heart thundered its last sluggish beat, he thought: "No way I let them get away with this. No way."
And then there was an eternity of cold pain that stretched into a silence filled with lightning.
METROPOLITAN CENTRAL POLICE INTERVIEW FORM 1220 LE-128A
Detective Lt. Michael Pascabian, Interviewer
*** Transcript begins
Zerenick: You really want to know about this? This isn't going to go the way you think it is, you know. This is going to sound like some crazy shit.
Det. Lt. Pascabian: Why don't you let us be the judge of that? What we want to know is why there are four dead bodies in the street just outside Mandrill Park, all with .45 caliber bullet holes in them, and why Salvatore Appelanno, the longtime house boss for the Cavecchio crime family, was carted away drooling and pissing himself, 51/50ed in a straightjacket....
Zerenick: Man, what you don't know would fill an encyclopedia, you know that? There's stuff going on in this burg that would scare a funeral director.
Pascabian: Look, you want to drop the Rod Serling act and get to the facts already? Who were all of you shooting at, and who shot back at you in that damn park? Was this a turf war thing? Someone moving in on your territory? Or was this a hit gone sour?
Zerenick: Turf war? Hit? What the hell are you on about? Listen, ya self-righteous boyscout, I'm just a business man, imports and exports, a little entrepreneurial loan investing on the side. I move paper. I'm no gangster and neither were any of the men with me ... you been watching too many movies.
Pascabian: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That explains your prior four-year stint in Chino for armed assault. Not to mention two different indictments for criminal conspiracy in a five-year period. You and your friends sure do carry a lot of guns for just paper-pushers.
Zerenick: Typical cop attitude ... Yeah, I did some time. What the hell has that got to do with this? That's ancient history.
Pascabian: What happened in Mandrill Park, wise-ass?
Zerenick: Fucking Judgment Day.
Sgt. Innes: Say again?
Zerenick: Clean out your ears, lady, I said it was fucking Judgment Day, as in thunder from on high, as in you can't escape your fate, as in sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind. Major fucking Day of Reckoning shit.
Innes: You mean someone you had done wrong caught up with you all. It was a vengeance hit. Vendetta.
Zerenick: Something like that. But it wasn't no hit.
Pascabian: Well, then, what was it?
Zerenick: The Hand of God. Or maybe it was the Devil. I don't know. But it sure wasn't no contract hit. More like an old fashioned Reckoning.
Innes: A reckoning. Okay, then, let's start with something a little less spectacular. How about this: what were you doing in Mandrill Park, and save the 'it's a public place' crap.
Zerenick: We, meaning my associates and myself, each got a call to go there for a meet. We were invited to participate in an unofficial discussion about new business opportunities. Off-the-record stuff, just between friendly businessmen....
Innes: What kind of business?
Zerenick: Supposedly it had to do with real estate development in that industrial park just outside town. An opportunity to get in on the ground floor as backers for a lucrative deal with a chain-supply outfit putting their headquarters in at the new development. Nothing illegal about that....
Pascabian: Okay, okay. Spare us the boring details. So what happened that turned the meet into a battle zone?
Zerenick: It, or maybe I should say 'he,' I'm not sure, was waiting for us. Everything looked normal at first, you know, just the park at night. Then there were these weird lights in the trees, the sound of music coming from nowhere, not like anyone had brought a radio with them, and it was like a tune you can't quite remember from a dream. We weren't really sure we were really hearing it. 'Ghostly,' you might call it. We'd all gathered at the prearranged spot and we waited for the guys who'd put the meeting together to show up and instead all we found was this guy, sweaty, shaking, eyes wide as dinner plates, his hands folded over his stomach to keep his intestines from falling out the hole ripped in his gut ... looked like he caught a blast from a Magnum bullet. He was wheezing and coughing and he kept saying, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," in this weepy-like voice until he caught sight of us and then he just shouted "Chrissakes, RUN!" One of my ... associates ... recognized him as Jimmy Tretteriano, owner of a string of local pawnshops. Anyway, we didn't have much time after we saw Jimmy staggering around, because that's when it all hit the fan.
Pascabian: And why is that?
Zerenick: 'Cause after he shouted 'RUN!' someone shot him and blew the top of his freaking head off ... We didn't investigate the scene any further after Jimmy's cabeza blew open.
Pascabian: Oh yeah? And why not?
Zerenick: Because right after then me and my men were being shot at by a ghost with twin nickel-plated .45 automatics.
Innes: A ghost?
Zerenick: Yeah, I said it, and I know it sounds crazy, but it was a ghost, a spirit. Don't give me that look. It ain't like you haven't heard this story before, or are you saying that what happened to Paulie Fandricorso and Louie Beggatoni last year in Mandrill Park was just a coincidence? You know what's going on. You just don't want to admit it. It was a ghost, goddamn it.
Pascabian: You and your guys got into a shootout with a ghost?
Zerenick: You bet we did. And I got dead men you carted away and another man with his mind melted to mush in one of your damn asylums to prove it.
Innes: Mr. Zerenick, you know that this doesn't make any sense.
Zerenick: Bullshit it doesn't. It makes all the sense in the world...
*** Transcript interrupted.
END OF EXCERPT
Barton Merryweather Dean swallowed the last fiery bitterness from the glass of scotch he'd been nursing the past half hour after the visitation.
His hands still shook.
Goddamn him for choosing Rubicon, California, as the place to pin his hopes for his political future.
He looked around his office, past the rippling interplay of light and shadow draping the inside of his plush office, moonlight and streetlamp-light streaming in through the latticed frame of a floor-to-ceiling, rain-streaked window, and he watched for telltale signs that his visitor was still with him. Nothing. He was alone now.
He knew that The Others would be waiting for him, waiting for him to join their little twilight conclave as they waited for the inevitable to happen. It was the time of the annual deathwatch. Well, they could just keep waiting. He wasn't going to join them.
The Revenant had been here, with him, in this room, and it had spoken to him in graveyard tones that had assaulted his ears like fingernails down a slate chalkboard. He could still hear it echoing in his mind, a loop of recent memory that would not fade. A voice that was a nasty, insistent, insinuating sound that imitated human speech, but originated from the throat of a creature that was not truly alive.
He hadn't truly believed the tales until today. He'd heard the story many times, told in many different ways from many different sources, but he'd never really believed there was any way such a thing could happen.
He believed now.
All the chickens were coming home to roost tonight. A decade-old story of injustice and vengeance was going to play itself out, and he was one of the few people who had always known that it was coming, even if he had never allowed himself to consciously admit it. He'd known. He'd always known. It was all on the wheel. Deep in his heart, he'd known that such things were possible, that Justice was a harsh, mean-ass bitch who never let things slide, never let the scales stay unbalanced, who always made sure that, somehow, someway, the wheel always came 'round ... Things weren't random. Like Mason Zerenick, he'd become a convert to the power of the forces of the supernatural.
As of this evening, he now believed in ghosts.
He could still hear that spectral voice speaking...
"The brothers are back. They had to come back sooner or later and now they have. You know what has to happen. You know how this all has to end. Keep away. Stay out of it."
That was it. Just those words and nothing more. And the image....
At first he didn't think he'd seen what it was that he was looking at, and then he'd realized that it was real. A chill had seized him that ran through him on a primal level. A tall man dressed in fashionable gray, a picture of sophistication, holding a pair of shiny, nickel-plated .45 caliber automatics in each gloved fist. The image faded in and out from crystal clarity set against the background of his office's bookcase. A picture, there and not there.
A ghost... The Revenant. Where else but in Rubicon, California, the place known as 'the Wraithwell'?
He needed another shot of scotch.
And as for The Others, let them wait....
The rain outside the window, seen dimly past the glass pane fogged on the inside from condensation from the collective breath of the six people in the room, beat against the glass like pebbles shot from a Derringer.
The people in the room were waiting. They were accustomed to waiting, and they hated it. They existed as if possessed of one mind, seeking, searching, watching, and recording. There were no fleeting flights of fancy in their perceptions, nothing was filtered through the screen of their emotions, and their point of view was as unbiased as could be imagined. They lived in a universe devoid of illusion. At times it threatened to drive them to madness. Time was an open book to them: the past, present, and future existing simultaneously, choices, events, contradictions and conclusions nakedly exposed. Frequently it was more than they wanted to see. But sometimes things happened that were so intense, so rife with catastrophe and with tragedy, that they were, in spite of themselves, drawn to watch and to record. So they waited. They had a dark sense of what was coming and they wanted to be proven they were wrong. They knew better.
Seventy years. Their city had been the center of a midnight whirlwind of unexplained and unexplainable, often times lethal, events for almost seventy years.
And for that same seventy years They, a group of concerned town fathers, merchants of influence, and sons of fortune, had been cursed with the responsibility to make sure that the Great Balance was never tilted too far one way or the other. It was a nightmarish, soul-numbing responsibility. They were all that stood between the fragile order of daily, waking existence and the onslaught of horrific chaos. All cities had their strange stories, all communities had their new urban mythologies, their superstition-fueled legends, but Rubicon was special in the worst of ways: its legends and myths lived and breathed...
Tell a tall tale in Rubicon and chances are the reality was far stranger and far deadlier.
In this city, the thin dimensional veil between the Realities was porous; sometimes things passed from one reality to another. The city was the bridge between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Within the city's depths, counted among its alleys and boulevards, there were places of power where the impossible was commonplace. Turn a corner and wander down some streets and you entered into a world beyond your imagining. Rubicon was a city of gates to the metaphysical Beyond. Time and history revealed to those who guarded the Balance that the greatest of the gateways was right in the heart of Mandrill Park.
And that was why the things that happened in Mandrill Park could never be ignored.
The parahuman minds of the men in shadows buzzed and their collective consciousness rerouted itself in a river of sensory perception past the windows, outside, onto the rainy streets of the city...
A quarter-mile away:
Early winter. Fat charcoal clouds sitting in a twilight sky over the city skyline, crouching like junkyard dogs warring over a half-eaten bone. Cold winds carrying the scent of car exhaust and fluorocarbons from the biochemical plant two miles to the east. Chemical smog.
The rain couldn't clean the scent of corruption from the air.
Early winter, a katana-blade away from Ninjatown.
Vanna Diamante sipped her French Roast coffee and watched the dancers file into the nightclub, passing from night's gloom into neon glare, their eyes hungry and hopeful as they passed through the doors into the club. The place, a former meat warehouse and butcher's company, was now called The Last Bet. Sylvana Diamante, whom no one ever called 'Sylvana,' watched with a dispassionate cynicism. Wes Lusko, one of her partners in Spectrehouse Security, a parapsychological investigations firm, was working undercover as a bouncer at the club, patrolling the velvet rope outside the noisy and decadent interior.
They were waiting for The Revenant.
Waiting. These days it seemed like she was always waiting: waiting for payday, waiting for love, waiting for daylight to escape her nightmares, waiting for the day when the world would again set itself right and she could reclaim her life.
Her world had come undone six years ago, back when she was a hotshot police detective. She'd thought she'd had the world figured out and destiny by the short curlies. Her life had been different then: orderly and controlled. But then, at a murder scene, she'd seen something impossible. She'd seen something so beautiful it had horrified her beyond imagining. She'd seen past the Veil of Reality right through to the other side, seen into the Deadlands. She'd seen the murder victim dancing with a Reaper Angel. She knew that she had not hallucinated, that she had not fallen prey to an illusion. It had been no waking dream-state. She had been alert and cogent and focused on the crime scene around her. She had known that what she had seen was realjust as she had also known that what she'd seen was for her eyes only. She'd seen for the first time evidence that there was a world beyond the one she knew, a world, even a universe perhaps, that revolved around the dead.
Everything had changed after that.
(Doomed to watch, unable to turn away, the Watchers in the darkened room collectively moaned. Invading the woman's mind could not be helped: there was no on/off switch for their telepathic intrusion. By the very nature of what they were, they could not help but see into the minds of others. It was like static on the radio dial, like channels constantly switching and refocusing. They surfed until they found something, some image or some emotion, that they eventually locked onto. She was the channel they all now watched. They did not want to see that, did not want to share that memory. They crawled unnoticed across the unsuspecting woman's mindscape, sharing her momentary perceptions to the point where they could feel the coolness of the twilight's breezes on their own flesh. In the room, but not in the room, they watched the night's events play out from behind her eyes...)
Vanna shrugged off her momentary recollections and brought her full attention to bear on the scene in front of the club. She watched from the shadows and set her mind not to care what emerged from them. On the street, the dancers collected for their nightly ritual of tribal gathering, creating their own nocturnal society. Blonde girls in fishnet stockings and leather mini-skirts or tight Lycra catsuits, young men in pre-aged dark denim or Armani leisure wear, gang-bangers in FUBU and Sean John, hardcore punks in Ben Davis cargoes and ripped T-shirts under leather jackets, yuppie Republicans in Abercrombie & Fitch business casual and twenty-dollar bills surreptitiously changing hands to grant them access into The Last Bet. See and be seen. Act fashionable and look like you couldn't care. Be independent, but be part of the 'in' crowd. Look bored. Watch the shadows.
They might catch a glimpse of The Revenant.
It was an event in and of itself, like Mardi Gras for murdered people.
Night time in Ninjatown. Early winter. Mandrill Park quiet and sleeping like a bad-tempered Rottweiler a couple of blocks away.
Vanna ran a hand through her short strawberry-blonde hair, through tresses that were gradually becoming more and more peppered with silvery white. She tugged the collar of her Gore-Tex jacket further up her long graceful neck, flexing her slim shoulders and fighting off the night's chill. She was nervous: the field of action was too large and there were too many variables. She and her team had no control over the terrain and who could and couldn't enter it. She was undecided, unsure as to whether anything was really going to happen, aggravated at the waste of her time. Conversely, she was afraid that something would happen. She had participated in many reconnaissance situations, commonly called "stakeouts," but none had been so ominous as this.
It had started with her company's ad.
At Spectrehouse Security we have a mission: to provide all members of the general public with a dependable variety of solutions to unexplained extralegal phenomena creating difficulties or threatening you and your loved ones. If you have ever felt frustrated explaining unwanted, unusual threatening situations to police agencies or felt threatened in your own home because of unexplainable phantom activity, whether it be bumps in the night or the lingering presence of departed relatives or loved ones that have challenged your beliefs and your nerves, we can help. We offer professional investigation in the classic sense of the term: empirical data gathering, technologically scientific research and, when necessary, physical intervention. We believe you. We follow the evidence and we've got your back!
Rowena Lambert and Judge Barton Merryweather Dean, elected as mouthpieces for embarrassed district representatives and recalcitrant members of Rubicon's planning commission, had hired Spectrehouse Security to investigate persistent rumors that The Revenant was again walking the nighttime boulevards of the Arkham West district. Arkham West, where Mandrill Park lay draped in eternal shadow. Eleven square city blocks, nine acres of land, east of the river where a regentrified business district and bohemian arts collectives met the edges of Japantown, commonly referred to as "Ninjatown," where the Asian Pacific gangs ran protection rackets and gambling and prostitution seemingly immune to an increased police presence in the community. The line of demarcation between Arkham West and the downtown Plaza-Financial District was the forested acreage of Mandrill Park. The police had long hated the park. It was the site of over twenty homicides during the last six years. It was the place of the last public sighting of The Revenant.
Three nights ago, four people had died there. Violently.
Spectrehouse SecurityVanna, Wes Lusko, Sydney Boyd, and Professor DeVeerhad been hired to work undercover with the local police's Metro Major Crimes task force to investigate the legacy of The Revenant and to bring the campaign of terror and death to an end. It was a Hail Mary play. The city's government was desperate to bury the urban myth and bloody legend of The Revenant.
Vanna and her team weren't so sure that accomplishing that goal was going to be as easy as Rowena Lambert and Judge Dean had initially assumed.
Rain fell listlessly, a liquid silver chill showering the city, and it couldn't mask the despairing perfume of the boneyard. Winter....
"Wes? Talk to me. I haven't heard anything but mumbling and whining party girls for almost ten minutes. What's happening down there?" Vanna barked impatiently into the throat microphone in her collar cradle.
Below and across the street, Wes Lusko (funny how she always thought of him as 'WesLusko'one wordinstead of just 'Wes' or 'Lusko'; more than a name, it was his title, like 'sheriff' or 'mayor'Wes was just that guy to her) tossed an aggravated glare up at her rooftop position seven stories overhead and shifted his chin to talk into his own wireless microphone.
"Five members of the West Side's Diamond Boyz mobster clan, six off-duty police officers, a judge, two local TV newscasters from opposing networks, an investigative reporter for the Rubicon Times-Chronicle, and South End rappers The Murduh Syndicate," Wes reported. "Other than that, nothing but the usual crowd of hangers-on and wannabes ... Are you sure your source has their information right? Are we really going to experience a visitation here, tonight?"
"Manifestation. The word is 'manifestation,'" a new voice, a man's, interjected through the electronic earpieces. "Visitations are after-life spectral phenomena localized to homes and buildings experiencing hauntings. Anastasio, The Revenant, haunts this entire district."
It was Walter DeVeer, professor of parapsychology, psychologist, and licensed private investigator. DeVeer had been a parapsychological researcher for over fourteen years. Vanna and Wes had only been at it for five years each. DeVeer was a hardliner, following exacting scientific methodology and quadruple-checking resources and information. He ardently believed there were such things as supernatural phenomena, not as an adjunct to some grudging sense of fallen religious faith, but because it was a branch of science heretofore unexplored. DeVeer was a crusader. Vanna and Wes were more mercenaries than converts, she an ex-cop and Lusko a former Special Forces Marine. Sydney Boyd was their public face, the firm's respectable front-person, the administrator and finance officer, and she very seldom ventured out into the field, preferring to keep distance between herself and the actual ghost-hunting so as to not compromise her business credibility.
The professor was a three blocks north of The Last Bet in a full-sized van, an eighteen-foot German hybrid containing targeting microphones, radar detectors, ambient wavelength scanning devices, telephoto camcorders with nightvision lenses, and its own wireless computer server operations center.
"Manifest, visitate, whatever," Wes remarked irritably. "Do you really think we'll see him tonight?"
"I dunno, my friend; I do not know," Vanna admitted. "But Mandrill Park is where Wayne Anastasio made his last stand against the Cavecchio Mob. The last time there was a manifestation, he was repeatedly seen wandering these streets over the course of four days."
"And Lambert and Dean think this is important because...?" Wes Lusko growled.
Vanna sighed. "Because this is Rubicon, California, the center of all American West Coast extreme paranormal phenomena, the place the popular media refer to as 'The Wraithwell.' Because we're here, near Ninjatown, where bad things happen all the damn time. And because The Revenant is the most active spirit of vengeance ever documented by modern media. You know how it works with the news media: 'if it bleeds, it leads.' Everyone is waiting for a bloodbath."
"If I may interject, let me add that there is an organized crime turf war on the horizon," DeVeer blurted through the mikes, "because the Asians and the Italians do not believe that The Revenant is actually the cause of any of the murders of their street soldiers and lower-level crime captains. They each think the other is using the urban legend to mask their own murderous duplicity. Mandrill Park divides the Guidos from their Asian counterparts in the Arkham West district, which, if the police commissioner is to be believed, means that the legend of Wayne Anastasio's avenging spirit is solely responsible for dividing a sixt- million-dollar vice territory when it could potentially belong to just one crime family."
"Sixty million dollars. Reason enough for a bloodbath by anyone's standards," Vanna commented.
"Nice. Bloodbath. And we're hanging out within a stone's throw of Ground Zero. We better be making beaucoup bucks for this...!"
Vanna laughed edgily. "We're getting some serious compensation, you can believe that, but I'm not so worried about The Revenant showing up as I'm worried about what our employers expect us to do if the worst should happen."
"Oh? And the worst being?"
"He starts killing everyone in sight."
"Oh, yeah. That," Wes answered in a small voice. "Jesus. Hold on. The Cavecchio crew has just arrived. Gotta go."
(Behind rain-streaked glass, the Watchers in the darkened room collectively held their breath. Their linked minds cast a giant telepathic net over the city's Arkham West district. They honed their focus, narrowing the psychic wavelength until they were able to channel their sensory input through a bridge they created and maintained through Vanna Diamante's mind. Material sensation and neural data traveled to and fro across the bridge, allowing them to experience the world through Vanna's eyes and through the filter of her emotions. What she saw, they saw. What she felt, they felt. Through the deepening gloom of a rainy winter's night, they ventured out into the deadly underworld of Ninjatown and they could sense the feeling of expectation, the anxiety and the fear, the curiosity and the dread that electrified the night revelers as they came to participate in what they assumed would be a massive media event. The Watchers, themselves each only human, blessed and cursed with gentle sensibilities and middle-class fears of urban crime, fought to maintain focus on the dark events that would ensue ... they were deathly afraid of what they were going to see. But it was their role to see it.
The Balance had to be protected. They had to know.)
From her vantage point above the street, Vanna could see two limousines pull up to the curb. The roof and hood of each long black vehicle shined like polished obsidian under the streetlamps even though the gray dampness of the evening threatened to swallow all light. Doors to the first limo opened and two impeccably dressed, mid-thirtyish men stepped out. The crowd waiting to get into the club caught its breath, hushing as it realized it was in the presence of royal infamy.
Carmine and Marcus Rodriggo, twin princes of Don Pasquale Cavecchio's crime family, emerged and claimed the night as if it were their due. Cousins to Don Cavecchio, they ruled the Cavecchio Mob while the Don sat imprisoned in Lompoc Penitentiary on a fifteen-year Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute conviction. Born into wealth and initiated into the ways of La Cosa Nostra at an early age, both brothers were Stanford University graduates, educated and hip and urbane, and both were coldly calculating sociopaths.
Between them they had overseen thirteen contract executions and had personally committed four murders
including that of Wayne Anastasio.
The legally ambiguous nightworld of Ninjatown was one of their favorite places in the city of Rubicon.
From the second limousine, six other men, hardcases, experienced mobster soldatos, stepped out into the drizzling rain. They were the Rodriggo brothers' bodyguards and entourage.
"Just tempt the Devil, why don't you?" Vanna muttered darkly. "All your arrogance will draw that murder-machine like a magnet."
"Such is the legacy of my memory," a whispery, breathless male voice said in Vanna's ear. "So it is true ... 'the evil that men do lives after them, the good oft interred with their bones.'"
Vanna blinked once as her heart skipped a beat. She was not alone. Shakespeare from Julius Caesar. The wet night's wind was spouting bitter quotes in her ear ... she knew better.
It wasn't the wind.
"You see my appearance as an invitation to the slaughterhouse. You have reduced my legacy to nothing more than the role of your New Age boogeyman."
Vanna froze. Something cold, far colder than the chill of night, hovered over her left shoulder. She felt the presence of a void opening, a tunnel into the unknown laid bare as that calm and quiet voice resounded over the patter of the rain. A visitation from somewhere beyond the grave as that voice, that sound that wasn't a sound, wrapped itself around her spine. Shadow given voice. Something inhuman this way comes. Wrong, wrong, it was all wrong because nothing should sound like the wind dying in a graveyard, all sleeping nightmare and maggot music.
"Do not speak again to your friend," the whispering from the shadows off her shoulder instructed, "Turn the microphone off."
Vanna was afraid to move.
"Now," the voice commanded.
She switched off the mike. She moved slowly, afraid to disturb or offend the phantasm that lurked just beyond the edges of her vision. She wouldn't look at the source of that awful, unmusical sibilance. She didn't want to confront such a vision head-on, didn't want her hold on reality challenged.
She didn't want the nightmare to be real. Sure, it was a strange attitude for a paranormal investigator to have, but it was what it was: she was still a human being and she was still afraid of mysterious and dangerous things that went bump in the night. One thing she had learned many years ago while still a copyou couldn't trust the night.
The cool, anemic rain couldn't disguise the musk of rot, the scent of corruption, riding the air.
Early winter, here, in Rubicon. The Wraithwell. Where the dead rarely, if ever, rested peacefully. Just outside the borders of Ninjatown, where Wayne Anastasio, underworld contract killer, was double-crossed and assassinated by members of his own organized crime family four years ago. Four years to the day.
In Rubicon, vengeance walked the streets clothed in memory and cemetery rot. There was nothing supernatural about it: in this place rage was as concrete as stone and the events that echoed down the corridors of Time left ripples that surged across an ocean of hate.
She hated dealing with the supernatural, her profession notwithstanding. She hated anything that couldn't be explained rationally. She hated being exposed to the secret dark side of reality.
She hated ghosts.
Electronic noise sputtered from her mike.
"I'm getting EM spikes all over the place," DeVeer said excitedly. The harsh electronic modulation of his voice startled Vanna yet further. "Ambient static is climbing, too! Got nothing on radar and spectrothermal scans are coming up with drifting cold spots in your immediate area, Vanna. You see anything?"
For a moment she didn't answer.
"Vanna? You there?"
"Switch the mike back on and tell him 'No,'" The Revenant advised.
Without hesitation, Vanna complied. "Nothing here, Walt. Listen, let's maintain radio silence for just a while longer, like we discussed during last night's prep meeting, okay?"
"Affirmative," DeVeer responded, signing off.
"Better?" she asked, turning her mike back off.
"Better," came the answer, like a benediction from a cobra, that hiss lingering in her ear and oozing venom.
Neither spoke during the long passage of a dark minute as the rain drained out from the gunmetal gray cloudbank above, hissing as if it would burn everything it touched with wintry heat. Vanna's knees and back began to stiffen as she remained crouched next to the building's rooftop ledge. She was afraid to move.
"I hate the park," the spectral voice said at last. "I hate it. Over the years Mandrill Park has been the Mob's favorite execution ground. I think we've murdered nearly two dozen people there over the past thirty years."
Vanna thought, Okay, fine. What does someone say to that?
A morose ex-hitman, a murder victim himself, crossing from beyond life's Great Veil, haunting Mandrill Park's twenty-acre-square, tree-festooned expanse. Vanna allowed herself a light sigh, shuddering slightly from the chill, her flesh crawling in the face of fear. She still couldn't stand the idea of turning her head to see the origin of that hollow voice.
She wasn't ready to look the Devil in the eyes.
"They wander that land, you know, walking in the shadows of the trees, through the cobbled paths of the Japanese tea garden, past the giant twin crosses of St. Alessandro, past the reflecting pool and the bocci ball field ... they wander. They fade in and out from shadow, friendless and alone, locked in silence, whispering in eternal gloom, weeping their crocodile tears. Liars, cheats, thieves, bullies, and rapists betrayed by other liars, cheats, thieves, and rapists. You gotta love it. Biblical irony as written by an angry circus clown ... great stuff."
"There is a certain poetic irony to it," Vanna commented past a dry mouth. "So, how come you're not down there among them, wandering lost and silent like the other phantoms?"
The answer surprised her. "A rough penance as dictated by the demons in charge of revenge. A balancing of the scales is needed. There are rules even in Hell. I'm not afraid of confronting the truths of my fall from grace. Yes, yes, I am one of the fallen, a tainted soul trapped on this earth haunting the world of the living. I am cursed to stay here until I put things right. Cursed by my love of rage. You call us ghosts, haunts or, if you're of a Biblical bent, 'revenants.' I do not wander, because I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death with balls bigger than those of anyone else in that valley."
"You're a liar, a bully, and a killer," Vanna hissed. "The world's a better place without you. No one mourns your passing. The only reason you're remembered at all is because you haunt Mandrill Park ... and because you're still a killer."
"And you're an ex-cop who is now a ghost-hunter. You've gone from the brotherhood in blue and all the legitimacy that buys to this, living on the fringes, out where the buses don't run, dealing with crackpots and religious fanatics and kooks."
For some reason she couldn't fathom, Vanna felt compelled to say, "They licensed me. I'm a P.I. They let me keep my guns."
The phantom laughed. It was a hollow sound, like wind rushing through an old length of iron pipe. "Funny. They let me keep my guns, too. Actually, it was more like a condition of my ... how would you say it ... oh, my 're-enlistment.'"
"We're not crackpots or kooks," she said stubbornly.
"And I'm not a figment of your imagination."
"Yes, I know that now. I get it," Vanna admitted slowly. "But why would they do this, whoever they are, the powers in charge of life and death and right and wrong? Why would they let you loose on this city, on this world?"
"Still a cop. Still asking all the wrong questions," The Revenant chided. "The real question is 'even if I get them all, will I ever stop?' You really ought to think about that."
... even if I get them all, will I ever stop? ... The question chilled her and, damnably, no, she had never once looked at it that way. She kept her growing sense of doom inside and said aloud: "Nothing's changed. You're still a monster."
"As I said: you gotta love it," the apparition intoned with acid sarcasm.
"So what now?" Vanna asked, in spite of her misgivings.
She spun around, her eyes scanning the rooftop through the gloom. A sudden gust of wet air threw water in her face. She blinked rapidly, her tension making her grit her teeth.
Nothing. He was gone.
The sudden concussive eruption of gunfire yanked an involuntary yelp out of her.
Bang. Kapok-kapok-kapok. Bang.
It was starting.
The Old Men, the Mustached Petes, had told them not to come back, had told them to stay away. They'd said that returning was tempting fate, that it would be tantamount to a slap across the face of an angry and vengeful God and that it was an open invitation for the Devil to have his way with them. They'd reminded them that this was Rubicon and that the things that happened here, good and bad but especially the bad, resonated down the dark corridors of history. What crap. They were a bunch of toothless old lions, caged up far too long, the memory of the ferociousness of their youth fading as the years accumulated, weighing them down like wet bags of sand. Superstitious.
Dead was dead. That was the way things really were in this life.
Carmine and Marcus Rodriggo reveled in their wealth and in their power, in their ability to generate fear, in the muscular influence they wielded over both the underworld community and in the corporate boardroom. They were educated, amoral, and predatory, and they were hungry hunters swimming in a sea of small fish, all waiting to be eaten. They were not accustomed to being told what to do or when to do it. They were made men, they'd sworn the blood oath, but they'd stayed true to their own ideas, kept their own identity, even when they'd apprenticed themselves to that doddering old fool, Don Pasquale Cavecchio. God above, but Cavecchio had tried their patience. But there was a pecking order within the Syndicate, within the influence of the Families, and if one wanted to rise within the ranks, a person had to occasionally cater to the strange requests of addled old men who saw cops and Feds hiding behind every bush and who saw old blood vendettas behind every smile. They lived too much in the past.
Giuseppi Vulpanella, the Cavecchio family consiglieri, had been their watchdog since they'd first been taken under Don Pasquale's wing years ago, and Vulpanella had guided them through the shark-infested and turbulent waters of local Mafia politics throughout the 1990s, when local organized crime had been at its lowest ebb. A string of no less than fifteen high-profile RICO convictions held in Sacramento and San Francisco Superior Courts had decimated the Cavecchio crime machine, but nothing had come so close to ruining the family as that trouble they'd had with that ungrateful, over-rated hitman, Wayne Anastasio. The man had been a goddamn hired gun, a high-priced target shooter, a pest exterminator, and nothing more. Yet they'd treated Anastasio like he was some kind of royalty because he'd once saved Vulpanella and Don Pasquale from a hit team of crooked cops. So far as Carmine and Marcus saw it, that had been Anastasio's job. He'd only done what he'd been paid to do. Over the ensuing years following that incident, Anastasio had become increasingly reticent about following orders, especially from young turks like the Rodriggos. He was picking and choosing his hits. Sometimes he disagreed with the opening of a contract on someone's life, respectfully arguing that the contract would negatively impact business and draw attention to the family's activities. A hitman with an opinion on family policy? Unheard-of. It should never have been tolerated.
The Rodriggos had convinced Giuseppi Vulpanella that enough was enough and that the only reason Anastasio was behaving the way he did was because he had been turnedhe was working for the Feds.
It wasn't true, but the evidence the brothers had manufactured and presented to Don Pasquale had certainly made it look true.
Carmine and Marcus had learned that the truth was fluid, always in flux, and that you could make it whatever you wanted it to be.
And whatever it was you wanted to eventually come true, like dreams and ambitions, could be made true, could become real, if you really lied like you meant it.
The brothers had changed the course of the crime family's history and its fortunes, making themselves kings in the process. All they'd had to do to make it happen had been to spill a little blood...
And spilt blood dried and faded with time.
But that was then. Years had passed. Nothing could be done to alter the events of the past.
Now was the only time the brothers Rodriggo trusted or believed in.
Vanna Diamante had lunged off the roof and was charging down the stairwell of the observation building as she shouted into her com-mike.
"Professor! Walt! Pick up, dammit, pick up! We've got a situation! Get over to Wes' position at the nightclub! Floor it!"
DeVeer's voice sputtered back across the connection. "What's happening, Vanna? Stay calm and tell me what's going on..."
"Stay calm, hell! I just got my own personal visitation from The Revenant! Wayne Anastasio's ghost was close enough to me to touch my hair and now I just heard gunfire! Now you get your ass over to back up Wes, dammit! I'm on foot, I'll have to meet you there soon as I can!"
"The Revenant spoke to you! But nothing registered on...."
"I said I heard gunfire, Walt...!"
"Okay, okay, I'm starting the van now, Vanna!"
"Goddamn it, shuddup and drive!" Vanna shouted as she cleared the third floor landing, descending recklessly tow and three steps at a time. "And get into that nightclub any way you can and when you do go in hot!"
"Gotcha!" DeVeers responded tersely.
She burst out into the night, her lungs heaving, legs pumping as she sprinted the block and a half over to The Last Bet.
She heard more gunfire and she heard voices screaming.
Too slow, goddamn you, too slow! Move, Vanna, MOVE! she thought as her mind gave way to her police training. She pulled her firearm out and switched off the safety.
She skidded on a puddle of water and careened off the driver's side of a parked car as she rounded the corner. She stumbled and almost went down on one knee but fought to stay erect. Sweat mingled with rainwater on her skin and the evening's gloom rolled over her like icy ink. She immediately noticed that the night seemed darker, the shadows more dense and opaque, as she neared the club. The neon glare from nearby shops, the delicatessen, the laundromat, didn't seem able to penetrate the gloom. She entered the alley that led to The Last Bet's parking lot.
Thirty or more screaming, screeching people were congregated in the open lot, many of them stumbling around under the dim, flickering glare of the nearby streetlamps and there eyes were wide with fear and horror. Quite a few of them had blood streaming from superficial cuts and wounds on their faces and exposed arms and one short-haired woman was bleeding from her ears. The group was disoriented, seemingly unable to leave the scene of the danger that drove their collective hysteria. They couldn't venture beyond the confines of the parking lot. The sudden crash of breaking glass made Vanna duck down, she crouched low and whirled about, looking for the origins of the sound. A small rectangular window at the front of the club was broken out from the inside. From her vantage point, she couldn't see in past the shattered opening.
Four damp bodies sprawled on the pavement, in the center of the stampede. They didn't move, and from the position of one of them, they looked to have been brought down as they were moving away from the club. Vanna couldn't tell whether or not they were dead or merely unconscious, but she didn't see any blood and none of them had the look of mobsters. Innocents caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
A misty smoke was issuing sluggishly from out the open front door to the club. It smelled of copper, spilled beer, burnt wiring and ash. She could hear the rhythmic thumping of the bassline to the music being played inside. A dull green and red glow, disco lights, bar sign neon, she didn't know which, seemed to come from within.
She didn't see Wes Lusko anywhere.
A sudden screech of tires heralded the arrival of DeVeers and the van. The scholarly investigator threw the door open and leapt out into the melee. He waved to Vanna that he would try to manage the crowd.
"Go get Wes!" she heard him shout.
Gathering her courage, her cocked weapon out at arm's length in front of her, she cautiously went inside. She flinched as a bullet whizzed past her face and smacked into the wall beside her. She didn't hear the shot because the pulsating music was so loud she felt as though it were a physical net hanging over her and pressing against her.
A constant cascade of electrical sparks fantailed up from an overturned mixing soundboard and the ornate modern art glass-and-neon-tubing chandelier at the vast room's center, over the dance floor, was hanging by a pair of electrical cables. Tables and overturned chairs littered the space and there were clumps of discarded clothing draped helter skelter off the uprooted furnishings. Overhead, the refrigerator-sized chandelier spat sparks to rain down onto the floor. The smell of smoke and burning copper was far stronger and a hazy stinging mist rode the air, making her squint against the flickering light.
There were easily a dozen bodies on the floor. Ragged holes had been punched through their torsos. At least two of them had skulls misshaped by massive head trauma. Discarded weapons lay near their bodies. Vanna could clearly see that they were dead.
The place was on fire and the overhead sprinklers were running, spraying cold water everywhere. The fire was slowly dying out, but flames still licked at the pool table and at the DJ booth, crackling with a mischievous and destructive glee.
Carmine Rodriggo was standing on top of the bar and he was screaming a stream of obscenities as he fired off round after round from a large automatic handgun. He aimed shots at every point of the compass and raged hysterically. One of his pant legs was torn and he was bleeding from a gash in his thigh.
Marcus Rodriggo was on his knees against the side of the bar and a long bar of shiny brass, part of the interior's mutated Art Nouveau decor, was sticking out from his abdomen. Blood pooled thickly around his body. He was still alive, still conscious, and he was holding his own weapon, a revolver, out at the end of a trembling arm. He was breathing in wet wheezes past clenched teeth. Vanna figured it was he who had shot at her.
"He's killed me, Carm, the fucker's killed me! Look at me, man! Shit! He can't do that, Carm, he can't do that! He's dead, dammit, he's dead!" Marcus wailed.
"Over here," she heard a man's voice whisper. Vanna dropped to her stomach and rolled toward the sound.
Wes Lusko. He was behind an overturned table, his old Army-issue Colt .45 Commander in his gnarled fist. He waved at Vanna to join him. She quickly scuttled over as yet another bullet smacked into the floor in the space she'd occupied only seconds earlier.
"Thank God," she muttered as she drew close beside him.
"I dunno about that, boss," Wes intoned. Not looking at her, he waved the barrel of his automatic over toward the western side of the club, past a pair of raised stages where spotlighted dancers usually danced in cages. She followed his gaze.
A tall man in a dapper gray suit. He had the look of an aristocratic dandy about him, more like a gambler and a rogue than an executioner. He seemed insubstantial, fading in and out of existence. In each of his gloved fists were large, shiny silver guns. Nickle-plated .45 automatics.
Wayne Anastasio. The Revenant.
He was smiling. It wasn't a pleasant sightthe right side of his face was nearly gone, the flesh and muscle exposed or ripped away, and what little remained intact looked like raw hamburger decorated with skull fragments. Amazingly, a fresh flow of blood drooled from out the ruined mess, as if time and ghostly physics would not allow the fatal wound to close. Vanna was suddenly glad she'd decided not to look at him while they spoke on the rooftop.
"Why don't you go back to Hell, you sick crazy motherfucker!" Carmine screeched at the apparition. "Go back to the Hell I sent you to!"
"Oh, but I can't, old friend, not without you," The Revenant answered in clear, polar tones. Anastasio raised his twin automatics.
Roaring like an enraged lion, Carmine fired again and again at the specter, emptying his clip at the figure of the ghost.
The fusillade of bullets had no effect.
Anastasio fired once, from each weapon.
Something resembling tracer bullets, a comet-like streak of red light from the muzzle of each of his guns, ripped through Carmine's face and chest, knocking him off the bar and into the shelves of liquor bottles lining the wall behind it. Glass and wood shattered. Carmine Rodriggo's body fell heavily, landing out from sight behind the bar.
"Ahhhh, God- damn- it!" Marcus wailed around a mouthful of mucus and blood as he clicked his empty weapon at the deadly apparition.
Anastasio's image rapidly drifted across the room and grew steady as it stopped in front of Marcus. The mobster looked up at the grievously ruined face of the dead contract killer and uttered a sigh of resignation.
"Last call," Anastasio said in his eerie, sepulchral tones. He leveled one gun at Marcus' face and fired. The man's head jerked and the back of it exploded.
Silence reigned inside The Last Bet as the sprinkler system suddenly clicked off and the music from the automated DJ abruptly stopped.
The Revenant turned to the side to face Wes and Vanna's position, only moving his head and fixing them with a baleful stare, and he said softly, "You need to leave now. Things are about to happen. Things that are only for the dead to know. The living cannot stay."
He didn't have to tell them twice.
(The Watchers in the darkened room stiffened and sobbed, their voices as one. They saw everything as if they were there and they watched the horror and the violence play out through the woman's unprotected mind. Her thoughts intermingled with their own, her raw emotions intoxicating and frightening in their intensity. Her regret pained them as if it had stabbed through their own hearts. In the room, but not in the room, they watched the night's events play out from behind their collective mask of anonymity...
The Balance was being forcibly put right, and without their intervention, but the act of reckoning was creating new scars on the sensitive membrane between the Land of the Dead and the World of the Livingscars they knew would keep bleeding until they healed. The Watchers dreaded the possibilities of what could happen hereafter, as Chaos held sway on a rainy night in the Wraithwell.)
The local police staged a half-assed investigation of the massacre at The Last Bet, but this was Rubicon and everyone knew the story of The Revenant. For two full weeks the city's streets were quiet: no deals were made, no money was collected, no beatings or murders were committed. There was an unspoken agreement that right now, after the terror and chaos unleashed in The Last Bet, no one wanted to tempt fate.
He was still out there. He could come back.
The city council paid Spectrehouse Security twice the agreed-upon payment with the caveat that no one in the small organization ever talk about what had happened. There were no worries about that, though, because who would ever believe them?
Vanna Diamante took a month-long vacation in Hawaii, just sitting in the beach and not talking with anyone in particular, a haunted woman keeping mostly to herself. She thought a lot about the nature of what little she understood about the world around her and she mourned as she realized that her life was now set on a course that would regularly include the intrusion of nightmares and bloodshed.
It was early winter. Fat charcoal clouds sitting in a twilight sky over the city skyline, crouched like angry predators warring over the torn carcasses after a hunt. Cold winds carrying the scent of pollution and the metal-tinged scent of exposed iron from the skeletal frames of new buildings being erected, snaked across the skyline, winding a serpentine path through the canyons between tall buildings: the perfume of industrial waste and concrete decrepitude.
The rain couldn't clean the scent of corruption from the air.
And in Mandrill Park, things without faces and shadows that moved against the wind, continued to hold sway in a place that defied every celestial law. The park waited. The park slumbered fitfully. There were yet other nightmares waiting to be born, other revenants awaiting vengeful resurrection.