GtPGKogPYT4p61R1biicqBXsUzo" /> Google+ Dark Urban Fantasy: Ghost Money (Eric Carter #5) by Stephen Blackmoore + chapter 1 excerpt | I Smell Sheep

Monday, April 27, 2020

Dark Urban Fantasy: Ghost Money (Eric Carter #5) by Stephen Blackmoore + chapter 1 excerpt

Praise for the Eric Carter novels

“Demons and dark magic and gods of death: what's not to like? Blackmoore's hard-charging prose hits like a bullet fired from a cursed gun.”

—Chuck Wendig, author of Blackbirds

“Eric Carter's adventures are bleak, witty, and as twisty as a fire-blasted madrone, told in prose as sharp as a razor. Blackmoore is the rising star of pitch-black paranormal noir. A must-read series.”
—Kat Richardson, author of the Greywalker series

“Blackmoore's third urban fantasy featuring Los Angeles-based necromancer Eric Carter is freewheeling and laced with smart-alecky banter....Blackmoore keeps the action brisk and the mood light, sprinkling his text with breezy witticisms.”
—Publishers Weekly

by Stephen Blackmoore
April 28, 2020
Genre: Dark fantasy, urban fantasy
Publisher: DAW
The fifth book of this dark urban fantasy series follows necromancer Eric Carter through a world of vengeful gods and goddesses, mysterious murders, and restless ghosts.

The Los Angeles Firestorm killed over a hundred thousand people, set in revenge against necromancer Eric Carter for defying the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. Carter feels every drop of that blood on his hands. But now there's a new problem.

Too many ghosts in one spot and the barrier separating them from the living cracks. And when they cross it, they feed off all the life they can get hold of. People die. L.A. suddenly has a lot more ghosts.

But it's not just one or two ghosts breaking through: it's dozens. Another mage is pulling them through the cracks and turning them into deadly weapons. Eric follows a trail that takes him through the world of the Chinese Triads, old associates, old crimes. And a past that he thought he was done with.

Carter needs to find out how to get things under control, because if more ghosts break through, there's going to be even more blood on his hands.

Chapter 1 
Dying is easy. Grieving is hard. 

Necromancers get a lot of questions about where the dead end up. Did Auntie Fiona go to Heaven? Is that Nazi being ass-fucked by demons? Are they getting what they deserved? Happiness? Peace? Punishment? My answer is usually along the lines of, “I dunno. Let’s ask ’em.” So far nobody’s taken me up on the offer. 

It’s probably just as well that they don’t. Actually contacting a soul in its afterlife? Hardly ever works and fuck knows I’ve tried. Maybe that’s by design. A small kindness in a universe that doesn’t give a good goddamn about any of us. 

Grieving is about not knowing, not having answers. Answers collapse possibilities, bring out unpleasant truths. Who wants to risk that? No, sorry, Auntie Fiona is burning in a pit of liquid hellfire. That murderer who took out a school with an AK is in Valhalla yukking it up with Odin and Thor. Yes, your true love is being reborn right now, but come on, stop obsessing about them. They’re a baby, that’s just creepy. Get over it already. 

Like it or not, souls go where they’re supposed to go. Heaven, Hell, Mictlan, Elysium, whatever. Not even their ghosts, if they’ve left one behind, know. The ghosts are just cast-off shells, a thin veneer of the person who’s gone. 

Grieving is about being in the question and looking for the answers. Sometimes that means denial, alcoholism, sex with strangers, Ouija boards, phone psychics, talking to guys like me. If you’re lucky, it means acceptance and moving on. 

In the end a soul’s destination is all uncertainty and doubt. And ultimately nobody really wants to know. 

The air inside the house smells like grief and smoke. Everything smells like that now. A month and a half on and though most of the fires are out, the smoke hangs heavy and thick over Los Angeles like angry clouds threatening to rain down flames. Most of the freeways are still collapsed, or impassable, like parts of the 110. 

When the small industrial city of Vernon exploded all at once, so many toxins got thrown into the air that they blanketed South L.A. The place is still toxic. It’ll be months before the air is breathable and years before anyone can live there. 

It’s not just the stink of smoke that fills the air, it’s the rot underneath it. It’s that back of the-throat taste of shit and piss and Febreze. Cholera waiting to happen. I doubt this house has running water. There’s sure as hell no electricity beyond the handful of portable solar chargers they’re using to keep their phones working and the LED camp lanterns lit. 

“Didn’t know you ever came out this way,” Keenan says. A wiry man with skin like teak, Keenan Mitchell has taken up in an abandoned two-story Craftsman off Figueroa in Highland Park. From the look of things it started as a flophouse, or maybe a hotel in the twenties. Now it’s a run-down apartment building with shoebox-size studios on both floors. It’s one of the few buildings on the block that isn’t a charred ruin. 

Two of Keenan’s cousins, Aaliyah and Indigo Wayne, twins, hover on either side of his chair like an honor guard. They’re younger than Keenan by about ten years or so, a little lighter skinned, but the family resemblance is obvious. 

The only way I can tell the twins apart is the attitude. Indigo is all spiky-edged, don’t fuck with me energy, Aaliyah is more—subtle’s not the word—coiled, like a spring, or a snake on the hunt, waiting. 

“What can I say? I’m a roamer.” 

When the towers came down in Manhattan on 9/11, killing almost three thousand people and injuring more than six, the sheer number of people in the tristate area who knew one of the dead or were close to someone who did was staggering. Twenty-eight million people were suddenly playing a game of Six Degrees of Holy Fuck What Just Happened. The grief was like a lead blanket crushing everyone under its weight. 

How do you grieve for that many people? How do you even process it? Surrounded by that much heartache, that much sorrow? Some people buckle under the weight, some prop up others and damage themselves in the process. Grief grinds you down, leaves you in shock. Even the professionals, the people who get paid to deal with it, they’re hammered by it, too. Three thousand deaths in an afternoon is going to break people. 

Now up all that by a factor of thirty. 

The Los Angeles Firestorm, or Firepocalypse depending on which news sites you read, swept across the entire county, from Long Beach to Lancaster, Malibu to Claremont. Almost a hundred thousand people died in one night, three times that many injured. Not enough hospitals, beds, doctors, medical supplies—a guarantee that the death toll was going to increase in the coming days, and it did. First responders were spread too thin, or dead at the scenes. The fires hit men, women, boys, girls, infants. Straight, queer, black, white, Asian, Latino, it didn’t care. Fire is an equal opportunity killer. 

Worse, it was magical fire. Fire that the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl stole from Xiuhtecuhtli during the invasion of the Spanish five hundred years ago, when Quetzalcoatl betrayed his brothers and sisters. Fire so hot it burns bodies to ash, melts steel, tears through concrete, destroys buildings, freeways, lives. 

And why did Quetzalcoatl do it? Why did he burn a city that he shouldn’t care a rat’s ass about? He did it partly because he wanted to goad me into bringing him an artifact I didn’t even know I had. Almost worked, too. Which would have been a whole other kind of nightmare. 

But mostly he did it because I defied him. I refused to burn Mictlan, the Aztec land of the dead, to ash and destroy all the souls there for him. For that act of disrespect he wanted to hurt me, so he burned L.A. to the ground. 

He didn’t care that it killed a hundred thousand people. He didn’t care that the people he murdered were innocent. He didn’t care that he left behind ash, corpses, and heartbreak. 

Gods are assholes. 

“Somehow I don’t think you just roamed on over to our neighborhood. So, to what do we owe the pleasure of your company, Mister Carter? Or can I call you Eric?” I showed up on their doorstep about half an hour ago and announced myself from the street by taking a small draw from the local pool of magic. Mages can feel that sort of thing, and they’ll know where it’s coming from. It’s the magical equivalent of ringing the doorbell. 

“Eric’s just fine,” I say. They didn’t want to talk to me at first, but instead of simply ignoring me, they upped the challenge by drawing more power from the pool. I was just trying to say hello and be all non-threatening about it. But since this had suddenly turned into a dick waggling contest, I saw their bet and raised them. I pulled more power. And kept pulling more power. A lot of power. 

You’re only going to know a mage when they do something with magic. We don’t walk around with pointy hats that say MAGIC BOY in neon letters. But once you know they’re there, a few things can give one mage an idea how powerful another is. 

How much power can they draw? How fast can they draw it? How much can they hold on to? If you’re really unlucky you might find out how much they can disperse, like, say, with a really big fucking fireball. 

We go back and forth a bit. There’s more than one mage in the house and they’re all getting in on the act. But I’m tired and just want this over with, so I end the contest by pulling so much, so fast, that it blocks them from getting any more. 

That’s when they opened the front door and let me in. 

I lean back on the couch. I came here with no weapons; no straight razor, gun, or pocket watch. I have my messenger bag, but there’s nothing in it that could be considered an immediate threat. Everybody here knows who everybody else is and bringing weapons would just send the wrong message. I won the pissing match. That’s humiliating enough. There’s no need to be insulting, too. I’m here to have a conversation. 

I can tell they’re on edge, and in their position I would be, too. Keenan and his cousins are all largely untrained mages. Born to normal parents, they’ve had to scrape whatever they can from the mage community, too many of whom see them as some kind of normal/mage half-breeds, which should tell you pretty much all you need to know about the mage community. 

For all their lack of training they’ve done remarkably well for themselves. They finally got the attention of some established mages when they made what was basically a DMZ around their neighborhood in South Pasadena. Crime pretty much disappeared within a two-mile radius. They won’t start a fight, but you bet your ass they’ll finish it. 

After the fires and the riots calmed down a little, they pulled together a caravan of family, friends, and neighbors looking for someplace a little more defensible amid all the chaos. They found this empty stretch before the National Guard came in to lock down chunks of the city that were deemed uninhabitable, shutting off the grid, turning off the water. The Guard makes periodic patrols, but L.A.’s a big place, and they’re easy to avoid. 

“I hear you’re having some trouble,” I say. Indigo stiffens, Aaliyah looks away from me. Keenan merely nods. 

“A bit. Some folks want to . . . what was it that guy said?” 

“Bring the flock into the fold,” Indigo says. 

“Yeah,” Keenan says. “Man came here saying we need ‘protection.’ And then showed us what we needed protection from.” 

“How many died?” 

“Three,” he says. 

“One of them was our momma,” Indigo says. She’s been getting steadily angrier, puffing up, hands a little shaky. It’s like watching the Incredible Hulk in slow motion. I know that feeling. It’s powerlessness and sorrow, and no idea what to do with it all, so it just comes out as anger. 

“Any survivors?” Indigo’s laugh is filled with bitterness and rage. She shuts off like a light switch when Keenan gives her a look. Keenan cocks his head at me and frowns. 

“What do you want, Mister Necromancer?” he says. “I don’t see anything here that might interest you. I hear you don’t care much about the living, and all the dead are outside.” 

“I want to know if there are any survivors,” I say. “And how they’re doing.” 

“Why? What are you looking for?” 

“I’m not sure,” I say. 

“Not sure to which question?” 

“Both.” I’m not lying to him. I’m not sure what I’m looking for, or why exactly I’m looking for it. I’ve got a lot of suspicions on what I’ll find, but certainty’s in short supply these days. 

Keenan takes a deep breath. “Two,” he says. “We got a boy in the back named Damien. We don’t know what’s wrong with him. Had a doc come by and look at him, said she needed to call in a speciali . . . Shit.” 

“Yeah,” I say. “I’m the specialist.” 

“She never told us who.” Probably a good idea. They might not have let me in if they’d known. 

“I’m not a real popular guy these days,” I say. “So thanks for seeing me.” 

“With what you were doing out there? Shit. If half the stories we hear about you are true, you’re not somebody to piss off even on a good day.” 

Huh. I hadn’t realized my reputation had gotten to the “let me in or I’ll blow your house down” level. 

“Okay. So there’s the boy. Who else?” 

“Sonofabitch who tried to make us pay for protection,” Indigo says. “He’s in even worse shape.” 

“Exactly what happened?” I say. 

“Guy comes in,” Keenan says. “Asian. Some lawyer type. Suit, briefcase. We didn’t even spot him until he was already in the front room. Had one of those ‘Don’t Look At Me’ spells up. Dropped it inside and we felt the magic go. Figured that was his version of a calling card.” 

That’s just rude. At least I stayed outside. 

“Then he starts making demands,” Aaliyah says. “Like we’re fucking peasants. Not even giving us time to figure out who the fuck he even is.” 

“First he made offers,” Keenan says. “Get us someplace with electricity on, running water, medical attention.” 

“He give you details? Where it was, who’s footing the bill, that kind of thing?” 

“Nope. Just a clean, safe place.” 

“That doesn’t sound so bad. Not to criticize, but you seem to be lacking some basics.” 

“Yeah, but there was this tone to it. Felt like a trap. And the offer was only for the talents. He didn’t come out and say it, but I think he wanted us to kill the normals and come with him. No way that was gonna happen. So we respectfully declined.” 

“He wasn’t happy,” Aaliyah says. 

“Asked us to reconsider,” Keenan says. “Our decline was . . . less than respectful that time.” 

“We told him to go fuck himself,” Indigo says. “I was gonna kick his ass. But then he lights up a cigarette and, fuck, I don’t know what happened after that.” 

“Lots of noise,” Keenan says. “All these wispy-looking nightmares with claws and teeth just explode out of his face.” He smiles. “And man did they fuck his shit up.” 

“You saw them?” 

“For a bit,” Keenan says. “Some of them disappeared right away, a few lingered before they did the same thing. But I could tell they were still there because they were fucking this guy up good. Whatever those things were, he didn’t have any control over them. Seemed like since he was the closest target they mostly went after him. Few other people got tagged.” He lifts his shirt and shows me a long, familiar-looking wound on his abdomen that looks like freezer burn. “Saw a few of them fly out the windows.” 

Terrific. “And the boy? Damien?” 

“He was sleeping upstairs. His momma said she saw five, maybe six of those things converge on him and then went all up his nose, down his throat. He woke up screaming, then passed out. You want to see ’em? We got the lawyer type in the same room.” 

“If I could.” My next question’s always touchy. I haven’t figured out a good way to ask it and I never know the kind of reaction I’m going to get. I watch Indigo out of the corner of my eye. If it’s gonna piss off anybody, it’ll be her. “What happened to the ones who died?” 

I see Indigo start to turn that rage on me, but Aaliyah touches her shoulder, barely brushes it, and she simmers down like boiling water taken off the stove. 

“Nobody saw,” Keenan says, “but when we found ’em, looked like they’d been sucked dry. Freeze-dried mummies. They started to crumble when we moved them. Took a while, but we buried them in the back.” 

“And soon as we can we’re going to dig them back up and give them a proper burial,” Indigo says. 

“We talked about this,” Keenan says. “We agreed we wouldn’t do—” 

“You agreed. Nobody asked me shit.” 

“Enough,” Aaliyah says, and the others quiet down. “We’ll talk about it later.” She turns to me. “You want to see them, right?” 

“If I could,” I say. I’m not sure about the dynamic in here. One second I think Keenan’s in charge, then I think it’s Aaliyah, but I get the feeling that when the shit hits the fan everybody looks to the biggest badass, and that’s Indigo. 

“I’ll take you,” Keenan says, getting up. “It’s at the end of the hall.” He leads me through the house to the back. There’s a sound in a place like this that’s full of misery. It’s not crying or wailing for the dead. It’s not even quiet. I can hear almost everyone in the house moving around, floors creaking, doors opening and closing. But it all sounds hollow, empty. Like everything good has been scooped out of it. It’s the sound of too much taken away too soon. 

“What’s the story with you and the doc?” Keenan says. 

“Vivian?” I say. “We used to be friends.” And a lot more, but I don’t get into that. 

“Used to be?” 

“I killed her fiancĂ©,” I say. Who also happened to be my best friend growing up. “It’s complicated.” 

“Complicated. I had a girl who was complicated,” Keenan says. “Shot me in the leg. We made up.” 

“I wish it were that easy.” 

We stop at a door at the end of the hallway. The smells of bad sanitation have followed us here, but they stop at the door and are replaced with the smell of meat left in the freezer too long. The temperature is several degrees lower here than the rest of the house. I touch the door. Frost spreads out from my fingertips at the contact. 

There are definitely ghosts in there, I can feel them, but I’m not sure how many. Since the firestorm killed so many people the ghost population has exploded, making it harder to separate them all. In some places the concentration’s so thick it’s like trying to see a star when you’re looking at the sun. 

“When did this happen?” 

“Two days ago. Doc came out here yesterday. She’s been doing the rounds and we got lucky, or maybe she just knew we needed her. She got Damien hooked up to an IV. Left the other guy alone. She brought us some basics we hadn’t been able to scrounge up ourselves. Water, food, blankets.” 

“Yeah, she’s good that way.” At least I assume she is. I haven’t seen Vivian in over a month. At the time she’d been—not broken, I don’t know that anything can break that woman—but bent. More cynical than I’d ever seen her before. Chain smoking, not sleeping. 

Whatever was going on with her wasn’t helped by my presence. She’s made that abundantly clear on several occasions. So once I didn’t need to be around her, I made sure not to be. Right now any communication is strictly through third parties. 

“Anybody go in there besides Vivian?” 

“Sure,” he says. “We go in three, four times a day to check on things. So far, nothing’s changed.” 

“The kid a talent?” I don’t ask about the guy. I’m going to operate on the idea that he’s a mage and dangerous until I see otherwise. Safer that way. 

“Nah,” Indigo says. “He’s a normal. Neighbor of ours. I’d watch him sometimes when his mom needed to go out, but he’s twelve now. Doesn’t need a sitter. Good kid.” 

“What about the guy? He got a name?” 

“I’m sure he does,” Keenan says. “But when the shit hit the fan everything he had sort of . . .” 

“Froze,” Aaliyah says. “It was like he’d been left out in the ice for a couple of years. His whole wallet disintegrated when we tried to pull it out. Briefcase, too, when we tried to open it. Leather, locks, screws and all. Just flaked away.” 

“Huh. That’s new. If it’s what I think it is, better if nobody else is in the room but me.” Indigo and Aaliyah share a look and a terse nod of the head. 

“Nah, man,” Keenan says. “I need to know what the fuck happened.” 

“It’ll probably get messy.” 

“Since when is anything not messy?” 

“Fair enough.” I grasp the doorknob—it’s bitingly cold—and open the door. The inside of the room feels like a meat locker. My left hand starts to throb from the cold immediately, particularly around the three through-and-through puncture scars where I took three shots from a nail gun. I got it taken care of by a mage doc I know in Venice, but he could only do so much. It’s functional, but parts of it are numb, stiff. Hard to make a fist, and when it gets cold, it aches. 

Most of the furniture has been moved out of the room, dust and skid marks on the old hardwood floor showing where it used to be. Now there’s just a folding card table, a chair, and two cots with bodies on them. It’s worse than I thought. 

It could be easy for someone to think that the boy was asleep. But when I get a closer look I can see that his eyes are open, the irises rapidly changing color. Various shades of blue, green, and brown, in no particular order. Just below hearing I can make out whispers of jumbled sentences. 

I had hoped the creatures the guy had released had been imps, minor demons, something like that. When a mage summons one it’s usually for a specific task and when they’re done they’re sent away to whatever hell they crawled out of with whatever payment was agreed on. But sometimes a mage isn’t paying attention, just doesn’t care if they hang around or not, or really screws up and gets eaten. Bored demons do things like possess kids, but looking Damien over I can see that it’s not that simple, and it’s far more dangerous. 

Ghosts exist in their own world overlaid on top of ours, or maybe the other way around, with a barrier that keeps them on their side, and us on ours, which is good, because they’re ravenous for life. 

Seen from this side of the veil they’re indistinct, jittery, like old film. If I go to their side they’re more solid to me. That barrier is all that keeps them from wreaking havoc, draining the life from everything they can get hold of. They absolutely cannot, one-hundred percent, no way, no how, cross that barrier. 

Except when they can. I’ve only seen ghosts cross over three times. Two ended in a ghost possession, and both of those were special situations that had taken me weeks of preparation. This isn’t that at all. 

One time in Hong Kong a dozen or so ghosts crossed the barrier over the space of a month. Two, maybe three a week. That might not sound like much, but one ghost alone was responsible for fifteen deaths. By the time it was all over about a hundred people were dead. 

I can see four, maybe five ghosts just under Damien’s skin. They flow into each other, faces looking frantically around, some trying to pull themselves away from the unconscious boy, others dragging them back in, holding them in place. The ghosts don’t have that ethereal quality they have when I see them through the barrier. The fact that they’re also very clearly taking up space inside the kid is also kind of a giveaway. This feels a lot like Hong Kong, but there weren’t any possessions. And there weren’t nearly this many escaped ghosts at one time. 

I lean in to get a closer look and one of them screams and takes a swipe at me. I back up quickly, barely missing getting ghost-bit. Keenan jumps back when I do. 

“What happened?” 

“Nothing good,” I say. “Maybe don’t get too close.” There was something wrong with the way that one moved, the way it looked. But I can’t tell what, in the sea of ghosts swirling through each other inside the kid’s body. 

“I didn’t see anything,” he says. 

“You wouldn’t.” But it’s weird he saw anything at all when they first appeared. I cross over to the other cot, keeping a little more distance. 

The man is in much worse shape. He lies covered with a thick blanket up to his shoulders, long black hair falling out in clumps. Sores on his face, particularly around his lips. Like the boy his eyes are open, but they’re changing color more rapidly. 

He has so many ghosts attached to him that I stop counting when I reach twenty. Some of them seem to want to possess him, moving their limbs as if trying to will his to move along with them. Others are feeding off him, taking nips at his soul, as if there isn’t enough to go around. And maybe there isn’t, because some of them look to be fighting with each other. 

This kaleidoscope of the dead is giving me a headache. I press the heels of my hands into my eyes in an effort to stave off a migraine. A wave of dizziness washes over me. It’s been happening a lot lately. 

“You know what this is?” Keenan says. 

“Maybe.” I’m not gonna tell him what I’m seeing, not yet at least, not until I know I can do something about it. Besides, he’ll tell somebody else, and they’ll tell somebody and then somebody who actually understands what the hell it means that there are ghosts breaking through to our side and eating and/or possessing people will lose their shit completely and I’ll have an even bigger headache to deal with. 

This is so much worse than Hong Kong. Used to be this place just outside the city proper, Kowloon Walled City. What had started as a collection of squatters in an old fort in World War II had grown over the decades, residents building on top of each other until it grew to fourteen stories, covered about six acres, and held fifty thousand people. Shopkeepers, criminal gangs, doctors, dentists, and on and on. Water and electricity stolen from Hong Kong, it was as real a city as it needed to be. 

The government of Hong Kong tore it down in 1993, built a park in its place. Nice, peaceful. Unless you can see all the ghosts, then it’s a fucking nightmare. Kowloon still stands there on the other side of the veil, its psychic footprint so strong that it may never go away. Inside is a rat’s warren filled with the dead. The decades of death, countless murders, assaults, accidents, have left behind thousands of ghosts. 

I was traveling through Southeast Asia for a year when I was eighteen, nineteen years old, bouncing from country to country for a bit. It’s easy when you have magic. You don’t even need a passport. I was in Hong Kong just after they finished demolishing Kowloon. 

I don’t know if it was the act of tearing down the city that did it, or something else, but I discovered the hard way that when you get that many ghosts in too tight a space the veil thins. Holes appear. Sometimes it just tears completely. 

Hong Kong was invaded by ghosts that summer. Not too many, but more than enough to cause havoc wherever they went. Like mages everywhere the mages of Hong Kong didn’t really care. It didn’t affect them, so fuck it, right? Besides, only a handful understood how to handle the dead. Nobody else stepped up, so I did. 

Pissed ’em off, too. Here’s this tourist who’s spent the last several months hanging out in the seediest red-light districts getting tattooed and smoking as much Thai stick and Afghan heroin he could get his hands on coming in and solving their little ghost problem. It was messy, it was ugly, and I never, ever wanted to see anything like it again. 

Yet, here we are.

About the Author:
Stephen Blackmoore is a writer of crime, horror, and urban fantasy whose work has appeared in the magazines Needle, Plots With Guns, Spinetingler, Thrilling Detective, Shots, and Demolition. He has also written essays on LA politics and crime for the website and the LA Noir true crime blog.

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