(I’ve sent Hollow to some beta readers, and one of the best bits of feedback I received was about a supporting character. Although I read this scene at Balticon, it’s changed to reflect the notes and rewrite of that character. If you enjoy visceral urban fantasy and a hazy bit of shadow between what we consider “good” and “bad” then read on. This is from my first full-length solo novel, and it’s definitely not sunshine and rainbows.)
Brooks knew that the collection would be messy. He knew that the coward would scream, that he would have to exert a little extra effort to pin the fat middleman against the crumbling wall, and that the blood would cover his arms up to his elbows. Brooks also knew that Tavares would try to do something as futile as bargain.
“Look, you don’t want to use me! Mr. Brookstone, you know I can do more work here! Important work, work that can help Miss Karina and Mr. Suede. I’m a better asset to you on this plane than you think!” Tavares gulped what little air he could as Brooks leaned in, pressing him against the concrete riddled with exposed rebar. A line of blood trickled from his mouth, staining his bottom teeth and dribbling down his sweaty face. A milky gray miasma swirled within the blood, curling back to coat the man’s lips. He lifted a hand a few inches, wheezing with the effort.
Brooks did not reply to the simpering plea; instead, he bore down on the smaller man’s throat, using one elbow against Tavares’ disjointed shoulder for leverage. Brooks offered no smile of satisfaction, no menacing words to threaten as Tavares whimpered and his eyes grew wide. The big man just waited, watching until the fat man’s sweat-slick face relaxed. Tavares swallowed hard and opened his mouth to speak again, but the motion was all that Brooks needed. He twisted his other hand in the man’s abdomen, causing crimson to blossom over the bottom of a pale silk shirt.
Tavares let out a wail that echoed off the walls of the parking garage. He clutched at Brooks’ arm as he babbled. “Please, man! I know somebody fresh, I could get him here. Just give me a chance to make a call, Mr. Brookstone!”
Brooks let out a long breath, vapor clouding the space between them. Hearing the collections plead at this point always irritated him. He spoke in a low voice, the rumble carrying in the cold dark. “No more chances, Tavares. You had the opportunity to produce another, and you failed to deliver. Since you failed to deliver, your lease is up.” Brooks flicked his blood-coated hand up, fresh warmth spilling from the wound along with a slow trickle of dark, viscous shadow.
Tavares opened his mouth to protest, but the shadow dribbled from his lips and he gagged on the blood that followed. His eyes shifted to the pair that stood behind Brooks to supervise the proceedings. In the emergency lights of the garage, the woman lifted her hand in acknowledgment. She wiggled her fingers in a mocking wave, slender gold bracelets clinking together with the movement. Unlike Brooks, she wore a wide smile as she approached Tavares. The heels of her black boots made a hollow click-click against the cracked concrete floor.
“Like he said, Tavares. You failed to deliver what was requested. I only have one use for individuals who fail. As a result, your lease on this plane is up.” Karina purred the last few words with satisfaction as she held up a battered red cooler. She reached forward and dragged a finger through the mess of blood and shadow coating his lips. Tavares jerked away from her touch. Her nails scraped over his tattered jacket sleeve in the same lazy motion, trailing down the arm that now hung useless at his side. “If you had wanted to stay so badly, you should have proved yourself worthy of this plane when you had a chance.”
“And no one here will deny that you had plenty of chances.” The other witness to the bloody exchanged stepped forward, the brim of his fedora hiding his face. Unlike Brooks and Tavares, Billy Cheshire wore a neat dark suit and a dark overcoat, and the shine on his shoes reflected the sickly glow of the emergency lights. He moved without noise, standing at the edge of the growing pool of blood and shadow that stained Brooks’ shoes. Even as Karina smiled to herself, Cheshire shook his head in disgust. “He warned you. I warned you. And we all know that she warned you,” he added, thrusting his chin at the woman holding the cooler. “When you neglect that kind of a warning three times, then there’s no one to blame for your fool self but, well… your fool self.”
Tavares opened his mouth to argue. Instead of begging or bargains, a gurgling growl spilled from his lips and his entire form sagged about Brooks’ hand. Brooks withdrew his knife from Tavares’ belly and a fetid smell rose from the wound. Wet rotten clumps of tissue clung to his hand. Karina handed him a small towel from the cooler she held. Brooks wiped his hands, allowing Tavares to fall into the crimson puddle of filth. He didn’t look at what remained of the man. This was just another night, where he followed Karina’s orders and protected Cheshire during the collection, and Tavares was just another host to be harvested.
On the ground, Tavares refused to yield to the pull of the abyssal plane. He fought to rise to his hands and knees, but his battered body would not obey his will. Cheshire snorted and lashed out with one shoe, kicking the fat man with enough force to send him to his back. The same shoe came down hard on the windpipe with a wet crunch. Tavares spasmed again and his eyes went dark.
Karina crouched on the ground, her dress rising high on her thigh until it strayed less than an inch from her hip. Her lips twisted in concentration as she watched the man’s features blur and shift within the shadow. “Ches, this is going too quickly. He shouldn’t be fading out this fast. I thought Silk said that this one was more than a century on this plane.”
“That was what she said when she set him up for us. Unfortunately,” Cheshire continued in a smooth and easy tone that put him at odds with their macabre surroundings. “We’re on a tight schedule, so there’s not enough time to check her timetable and finish the collection in time. We’ll just have to hurry.” He winked an apology and slipped free of his overcoat. An array of knives, scalpels, and surgical scissors arranged in a modified holster caught the light, the tools equally elegant and appropriate for a Stitcher on this plane. He selected one of the larger scalpels and held it between gloved fingers. “Brooks, if you would be so kind to assist?”
Brooks reached down and tore off what remained of Tavares’ shirt until the chest lay exposed, remarkably unmarked above the bloody hole in his abdomen. What was left of the man panted and heaved, life staining the concrete as the abyssal creature contained in the husk struggled against the pull of the other plane. It had no voice with a crushed throat, but its eyes watched Cheshire as the scalpel met flesh and the Stitcher made the appropriate incisions. Testament to his experience in assisting during these collections, Brooks had avoided the most important organs in subduing the target.
Cheshire worked quickly, Brooks focusing his attention on the street as lookout. In Las Perditas, they didn’t worry about local law enforcement interrupting their work in this part of the city, especially after midnight. Those who worked the corners and back alleys knew better than to approach business that didn’t concern them. Like so many impoverished cities in the Southwest, Las Perditas survived in part because the gangs kept to their own territories. Powers greater than petty vengeance owned the streets, and they directed the gangs and smaller businesses to meet their specific needs. The police and local governments could pretend that they affected crime and violence with their meager efforts; they could tell the public that their attempts at soup kitchens and socially conscious clinics would keep the dealers from running the latest crystals and powders through the streets and selling sex in the back rooms of convenience stores and takeout restaurants.
Brooks watched local law enforcement go through the motions every day. The suits and badges would rather believe that the most prominent businessmen of Las Perditas disappeared in gang-related incidents than admit that a more sinister force controlled the streets. Manny Tavares had worn a human skin to contain the essence of an abyssal wisp. When Cheshire finished to collection, the husk would be left for others to discover while what some might have called a soul returned to the abyssal plane as a failed soldier in the greater war for the earthly plane.
“This is going to be close.” Cheshire wheezed and strained, pulling apart the ribcage with inhuman strength. “This body wasn’t an ideal host to begin, and Tavares didn’t do it any favors while he was part of it. The heart’s not quite seasoned enough, so we’ll need to move fast. Baby, have that cooler open and ready.”
Karina gave a smooth purr at the pet name and cracked open the red and white lid. She arranged the ice inside and lifted a thick clean white cloth. She cupped both hands beneath the towel and made a face as Cheshire lifted the organ from beneath the bone and muscle. He deposited the heart in her hands before prodding the underside with the handle of his scalpel. In response, the heart made a feeble attempt to contract and expand. Brooks could see the shadow mingling with the blood in the thick veins surrounding it. He had witnessed hundreds of collections, and this heart did not have the telltale shadow beneath the membrane.
A rank odor arose from the cloth and Karina wrinkled her nose. “This might not keep for long, gentlemen.” She arranged the ice around the delicate parcel as she placed it inside the cooler. The cover locked down, she stepped back to study what remained of Tavares. With the heart removed, the immature abyssal wisp could not control the human husk. The thin black shadow coalesced in a weak semblance of an abyssal creature, gnawing at the air and trying to lash out at Cheshire with a jagged claw. Just as quickly, the concrete heaved and cracked. A sulfuric odor filled the air and an icy wind whipped about them. The creature snarled and tried to maintain its grip on this plane and the decaying body, but the pull of the abyss was too strong and it slid through the crevice with a sharp hiss.
Brooks nodded at what was left of the body; whoever stumbled upon the remains would find a rotten carcass in a rapidly decaying state. Had Tavares spent a few more centuries on the earthly plane, he might have lasted until daylight before the abyss swallowed him whole. “We’d better go. She had better be ready and waiting.”
“Absolutely.” Cheshire cleaned his scalpel with a fresh handkerchief and slid it into his holster. He shrugged into his overcoat and waited while Karina rested her fingertips on the crook of his elbow. “Something that rotten won’t keep for long.”
(And that’s the first scene. Thoughts? Feelings? Think it would make a good listen? Let me know in the comments!)