Monday, December 26, 2016

The Sublime Electricity, Book 2: The Heartless

The Sublime Electricity, Book 2: The Heartless
by Pavel Kornev

Release: February 28, 2017
Preorder now -

The Sublime Electricity, Book 1: The Illustrious (Kindle - KU)


Once, this world was dominated by the fallen, but humanity cast off their tyrannical rule and created a mighty Empire with colonies spread out across the globe. The power of the metropolis is stronger than ever before, but its past is dark and its future cloudy. Old secrets are capable of destroying in one moment what took years to create. After all, nothing can save it from treason, not armadas of battleships nor bomb-laden dirigibles.
The key to one such secret, by happenstance and inheritance, has fallen into the hands of Leopold Orso, a former police investigator who now works as a private detective. His illustrious talent allows him to bring other people's fears to life, but it also does not help him extricate himself from the web of another's scheming. Defeat threatens to result in imminent death. Victory beckons with the ghost of a chance to escape with his life. His soul is plagued by painstakingly forgotten memories. And to think that all Leopold ever wanted was to get an inheritance that was his by birthright.

Nerves, nerves, my heart is stitched of thee!
Steamphonia (Russian Steampunk Band), Heart

Part One

Moor. Tempered Steel and Gelled Kerosene.


The engine blared out a heartrending bellow. The armored car was racing down a rain-slicked country road, every minute and even second threatening to fly off the shoulder and get stuck in the mud or, even worse, slam into a tree or flip over. Time and again, the tires bounced up on a bump, then plunked down into a pothole. The steering wheel was banging up and down, trying to break free of my hands. I had to grasp it with all my might or I risked losing control.
My first misstep would almost certainly be my last.
Speed. Peril.
My legs had long gone numb. My back was shooting with unbearable pain, and my eyes were constantly tearing up. But I was glad to be rushing off to my uncle’s estate in the middle of the night, relieved to be done with the formalities in the Chinese Quarter so quickly. Ramon Miro, on the other hand, had been complaining about our trip from the very beginning.
His normally red-tinged face was now nearer the color of cream. The former constable was splayed out like a starfish, afraid to fly out of his big seat on our next little jump, and clearly struggling against a bodily urge to vomit. He strongly doubted the possibility that the unknown strangler would be in front of us, and told me as much without end until he was finally overcome by nausea.
"Stop and clean the headlights!" He demanded.
"I can see the road just fine!" I retorted, not wanting to lose time.
"It's make or break time!" I repeated to myself mentally. Another of my grandfather's sayings. "It's make or break time, no looking back now!"
We had to make it. Make it or die trying!
Fortunately, now that we were outside city limits, the rain had become less intense. The country road mostly ran through fields, making detours around the little forest glades. All that was left for me was to look out for potholes and keep the pedal pressed to the floor, pushing the engine for all its horsepower.
It was crackling madly, just gulping down the trotyl granules. The unsecured cargo in the back was rattling loudly, as well. I couldn't even hear my own thoughts, but I did make out a question from Ramon.
"No!" I screamed back, not looking away from the road for even one moment. "I have no idea who strangled the Judean!"
But it definitely was no human. The hands of mere mortals could not cause frostbite, nor leave ice burn on the skin. Aaron Malk had been killed either by infernal beasts or an illustrious gentleman. It was probably one of the bank robbers who tried to work me over.
Who precisely was not important. What was important was beating him to my uncle’s estate.
The killer now knew for certain where to find the lightning-rune aluminum box and, if we didn’t get there first, Count Kósice would be parting not only with it, but with his very life. The last part, to be perfectly honest, wouldn’t have especially bothered me. The problem was that, if it came to that, the chance of us meeting the same fate surpassed all rational bounds.
If the illustrious gentlemen got their hands on the aluminum box, the malefics would come after me. Failing that, I'd have to keep running from the mysterious bank robbers. But if I had the box, I could take control of the game; my only real chance of overcoming my opponents was to make some more progress in the investigation.
Just then, a front wheel plunked down into a pothole. The self-propelled carriage lifted off the ground, then slid into the mud; at the very last moment, I regained control and straightened out the armored vehicle just before it drove off the shoulder. We came very close to turning over in a ditch.
Ramon made a convulsive gulp and moaned out:
"I hate you, Leo!"
I just snorted:
"Think about the three thousand..."
"I've earned it already!" My hulking partner cried out immediately in reply. "My job is done! But now, you've dragged me along on this long-shot adventure!"
"The hunt for the werewolf you also thought a long-shot adventure, right?" I replied, easily finding an answer.
But Ramon Miro wasn't quite as verbally adept. He stuck his finger into the loose seam of his blood-soaked cloak and asked in an accusatory tone:
"Do you think this is normal?"
I had nothing to parry his indisputable conclusion with, so I didn't even try.
"We need to figure out why all this started! If we find out what's riding on this horse, we'll be showered in gold!"
And again, Ramon was ruthlessly precise in his wording.
"That's you!" he declared. "Not me! You'll be showered in gold, not me."
"Don't worry. I won't leave you out in the cold," I promised him, noting a few flames flickering to my right and warning him: "We're past the station. We'll be there soon."
Ramon went silent.
Having thrown all the dogs and people nearby into a panic with its loud chattering, the armored car dashed between tenant’s farms, drove around an oak glade and finally rolled right up to the manor.
"We're almost there," I warned my friend. "Get ready."
"Turn off the headlights," Ramon advised.
"There's no use," I refused, not even so much because I was worried I would fly off the road, as much as because of the engine's clapping. Only a deaf person wouldn't have heard that.
Or a dead one.
That was the very thought flickering through my head as the armored car came to a stop before the closed gates of my uncle's manor. In the guard-post window, there was a dim light flickering, but the late old man didn't think to glance outside and ask why the police were visiting at such an unearthly hour.
Something wasn't right.
"Something isn't right," I said to Ramon.
But before my warning, he was already hidden behind the smoke-shrouded hood of the armored car, pressing the stock of his Winchester to his shoulder.
"What am I even doing here?" he moaned.
"You're covering me!" I reminded him, and got out of the vehicle. "Don't yawn!" I warned my friend, running around the self-propelled carriage, throwing open the back door, and tossing my cane in. In its place, I pulled out a semi-automatic carbine and a few cartridge pouches full of loaded clips.
"The glasses won't affect your vision?" Ramon then asked.
I lifted the smoky eyepieces and snorted:
"What do you think is better?"
My partner's reddish face lit up in the darkness with the luster of my shining eyes. He admitted:
"On. Put them back on."
I lowered my glasses back onto my nose and carefully walked up to the gate. Then, my rifle propped on a crossbeam, I commanded Ramon:
"Come on!"
My hulking partner jumped over the fence in a flash, undid the latch and opened the path onto my uncle's property.
"The guard-box!" he whispered, warning me.
"You first!" I sighed out just as quietly in response.
I didn't want to loudly announce my presence, regardless of the warning shot I risked from a manor guard.
Covering one another, we walked up to the cracked-open door. There, Ramon peeked inside and immediately recoiled.
"Dead," he said, adding: "Broken neck."
"Curses!" I swore, hesitating for a moment, then ordering: "Wait!" and hurried to the armored car.
I removed the steering wheel and threw it in the rear, then climbed in after it. I felt around for the box of grenades I had strapped down under the seat, took out two and twisted in the fuses. Then, I hung a massive padlock on the tailboard and returned to my partner, now much calmer and more put together, my knees not shaking in the slightest.
"We should call for backup!" whispered Ramon, greeting me angrily, having completely forgotten his recent dismissal.
I didn't stick my finger in the wound, though, just shook my head:
"I think we're too late."
"Where did you get that idea?" asked my hulking partner, growing surprised.
"The dirigible is gone," I told him, pointing to a lonely signal light on the docking tower.
The airship’s signal lights were nowhere to be seen, along with the white oval of its balloon.
"The murderer might have flown away on the dirigible," Ramon posited.
"All the more reason not to worry," I snorted and started off to my family mansion.
My hulking partner came behind me, but quickly stopped and declared:
"Either the Count or the killer flew away. There's no reason for us to go in!"
"Come off it!" I exclaimed, trying to bring my partner to reason. "We have to figure out what exactly happened here!"
"Why the devil do we have to do that?"
"In order to have an elementary understanding of who we're searching for! And also, if the Count flew away on the dirigible, the strangler must be somewhere nearby. What if we can get him talking?"
"No," Ramon cut me off. "That's a bad idea."
I looked at the silhouette of the mansion. There wasn't a single light on. Next to it, there was a stable and an overgrown garden that could have hidden a whole company of soldiers. I mentally agreed with my friend.
It really was a bad idea. Bad and very dangerous.
But I said otherwise out loud.
"Either we go together," I shrugged my shoulders hopelessly, "or you wait for me in the car. But know that, if I don't come back, the Judeans won't pay you a centime for the werebeast. Think about that!"
"Curses!" Ramon swore, wiping his sweaty face and nervously glancing at the darkened mansion. "Aw hell!" he relented. "Let's go!"
With a quiet chuckle, I went first down the path, stopping when I reached the fork toward the stable, but didn't turn down it, not wanting to waste time. The mansion was luring me in.
Luring? I caught myself on that thought and even slowed my pace.
My excitement faded as if I had crossed over some invisible boundary. The world once again acquired dimension. The silhouettes of the buildings and the trees of the garden no longer seemed like carved plywood theater props strewn carelessly about the lawn. The understanding rolled over me that this was all happening in the here and now.
My fear returned.
I froze in place, listening to the silence of the night. Without the sound of our boots splashing in the puddles, the silence would have been grave-like. The only other noise was the horn of a steam train somewhere very far in the distance. But it felt like it was coming from another world; all the armored trains of the Empire taken together wouldn't have been able to help us now.
"Leo!" Ramon whispered quietly. "What's going on?"
I shrugged my shoulders to settle my imagination's unwelcome playfulness, and walked on. My family manor grew up out of the darkness like a black titan. Soon we were able to see the door. It was thrown wide open.
"I'll be damned if that isn't an invitation!" Ramon sighed. "'Will you walk into my parlor?' said the spider to the fly!"
My laconic, hulking partner's strained nerves had loosened his tongue, and I found it necessary to reassure him, so I handed him one of my grenades.
"Take this."
"You just can't wait to blow this whole place up, can you?" Ramon joked, looking around apprehensively. "Maybe we should just burn the house down now and not waste time."
"Excellent idea!" I grumbled, slowly and carefully stepping up onto the veranda. "Cover me!" my friend called out, first to cross the threshold.
We stood in the entryway, looking around in the darkness, then I flipped the light switch on the wall, but the electric bulb on the ceiling didn't turn on.
I hung my carbine on my shoulder, took my Roth-Steyr from its holster and requested:
Ramon handed me his pocket torch; its bright beam swept through the entryway and immediately picked out the body of my uncle's butler from the darkness. Also, someone's legs were sticking out into the hallway in a pair of badly abused ankle-boots.
After stepping over the night guard's body, we walked into the guest room. There on the sofa was lying the parlor maid with her head thrown back. The color of her bloodless face was now no different from that of her white apron.
"Damn it!" Ramon Miro sighed.
"Quiet!" I hissed at him, listening to the silence.
On the other side of the wall, there was a cricket chirping quietly, but that was all. I couldn't hear anything else.
"Follow me!" I commanded and started walking up to the second floor.
The bright beam of the torch danced and jumped from side to side, easily illuminating the dark corners. At the same time, I couldn't leave the thought that someone's cold eyes were watching us from the darkness.
Wishful thinking? Who the devil could say...?
We walked right past the second floor.
"First, let's check the Count's office," I decided, walking further up the stairs.
To my great surprise, I lost all desire to continue pursuing the unknown strangler; I was filled with the urge to turn around and run away without a second thought. And I don't even know what exactly stopped me from taking that shameful step, the left-over passion still raging in my blood or the fear of looking foolish.
I suspect it was more the second.
We walked up to the third floor. I walked into the hall and froze like a dead person when the I saw the flickering of a kerosene lamp in the flung-wide doors.
And a shadow! The shadow on the floor in front of the door was throbbing slightly, either crawling away in one direction or slinking away in the other. There was someone in the office.
The torch now off, I stuck it in my pocket and pressed my pointer finger to my lips. Ramon nodded, letting me know he'd seen the shadow, and was gathering strength for the fight.
I held onto my Roth-Steyr with both hands and walked forward. Walking soundlessly on the carpets leading down the hall, I stole up to the door and took a bounding leap into the office. Once there, I immediately stepped aside, making way for my partner.
I didn't shoot; I didn’t see any person. There was just paper strewn about, and filing-cabinet drawers snarling up at me from the floor.
But I made a mistake! Initially, my gaze just slid right over a figure sitting at the desk, as if it was just another shadow. The flame of the kerosene lamp was quivering behind the immobile man, turning him into a black silhouette like one of the slippery fish swimming thoughtlessly in the aquarium at the far wall.
I could only make out a cloak and a hat with a wide flat brim; nothing else.
Shadows, what a damned nuisance!
I drew my pistol, putting the stranger in the crosshairs, but before I managed – or got up the resolve – to pull down on the trigger, there came an unpleasant whistling half-whisper, just as ghostly as the shadows:
"It's no use!" The sentence echoed in my temples with a vile sting. I froze indecisively with my pistol raised. Ramon, though, didn't hesitate. His Winchester burst forth with a deafening thunder. Its dual spark tore the shadows filling the office to shreds, but the malefic wasn't moved in the slightest.
He made a theatrical pause, then looked at the bullet in his hand and said carelessly:
"You’re just wasting perfectly good cartridges."
Angry at the setback, Ramon clanked down the lever of his Winchester, throwing the spent casing onto the floor. But I stopped him, repeating the strangler's words:
"It's no use!"
The mysterious figure set the bullet down on the edge of the writing desk. Not only was it covered in frost, it was also deformed; the stranger's bony fingers had crumpled the aluminum jacket.
"Good decision," the malefic laughed. Then, with a magician's gesture, he pulled a box made of light-gray metal from thin air. I saw the lid. It was engraved with a jagged lightning rune. "I suppose this will be of interest to you, illustrious Mr. Orso?"
"Perhaps," I answered cautiously, guessing how to act.
Move from a position of power or show him how reasonable I could be? Attack first, or try to come to an agreement?
The bullet he crushed in his fingers made the first option seem futile; the ruthlessness displayed by the strangler had taken away all hope for the second.
So, what to do?
Ramon started walking in one direction away from the door. I went the other. The kerosene lamp was now not at the strangler's back but, even so, the dense shadows under his hat formed an impenetrable veil, hiding his face better than any mask.
"Guess where the Count is," the malefic commanded me calmly; he was stubbornly ignoring Ramon, instead turning to face me.
I made sure the desk was between us, and demonstratively holstered my gun.
"Even if the Count is in hell, I won't be too broken up," I answered, not especially bending the truth.
"Perhaps he is in hell," the strangler chuckled. "Would you like to take a look?" he asked, extending the box. He immediately pulled his hand back, though, as if teasing.
"Take a look?" I asked in incomprehension. Licking my lips, I asked: "Under what conditions?" I asked and immediately realized I'd just made an unforgivable mistake. Perhaps even a fatal one.
The strangler's relaxed demeanor was immediately replaced with predatory interest.
"You don't know what's inside, do you?" he asked, even taking a step forward. The flame of the kerosene lamp before his face forced him to stand up straight and move back, though.
For the first time, his whistling half-whisper did not cause a biting echo in my head, so I was able to formulate my answer more carefully in opposition to my previous, rushed bluntness.
"Do you?" I asked, watching a fiery moth wriggling on the window. "Do you know?"
"That doesn't matter," the malefic answered, and the shadows around him started moving like a constrictor wrapped around a circus performer.
One of the ghostly tethers slid up to Ramon and twisted around his ankles; my hulking partner froze half-step, and the barrel of his Winchester, originally pointed at the strangler, suddenly shook and began to turn in my direction.
With a fated sigh, I removed my dark glasses, but the glow of my eyes didn't throw the malefic off in the slightest. He just laughed:
"And just what do you think you're going to do, illustrious one? Scare me to death?"
"Take you with me to hell," I answered, and threw the lamp on the floor in a careless motion.
The glass immediately shattered. Kerosene poured out all over the office and caught fire. The flames reached the curtains almost instantly, flying up to the ceiling. The haphazardly strewn papers, turned over drawers and furniture then also caught in their turn.
Ramon threw his Winchester away and tore off his flame-ensconced cloak. He ran into a chair and started rolling on the floor looking like a human torch. The fire cut me off from the entrance door and chased me into the corner. But the strangler didn't lose his presence of mind. Or was it that he lost his mind in fear? In any case, he dashed toward the exit right through the fiery room.
I glanced at my timepiece, waiting for the right moment, but Ramon extended his hand to me and, begging, rasped out:
"Come on, Leo!"
Having decided not to test my partner's patience, I took the carbine off my shoulder and struck the aquarium wall with its buttstock. The water that poured out onto the floor instantly put out the puddle of burning kerosene and an impenetrable blackness took over the office again.
"Fires of hell!" Ramon whispered through his parched lips, peeling himself from the wall. "That hurt like hell!"
"Silence!" I hissed at him, walking over to the door and looking into the hallway, but the strangler's trail had already gone cold. I tried to listen for him, but the dense silence just rang in my ears.
Ramon stood next to me and whispered out barely audibly:
"Did he get away?"
"He got away," I confirmed just as quietly.
My hulking partner wiped off his perspiring brow and fell back into the armchair, sapped. He'd been struck by just a little echo of another's horror, but even still looked like one of the fish from the now empty aquarium.
"Will he be back?" Ramon asked when I turned on my electric torch and started studying the chaos I'd caused in the office.
"No," I stated confidently in reply. "But if he does come back, he'll see a burning house."
"How'd you do that?"
I just laughed:
"It’s all my talent, old buddy. Or have you forgotten?"
The strangler was afraid of fire; I noticed him jump back from that kerosene lamp. He was obviously scared. All I had to do was pull on that thread at the right time to turn the puddle of burning kerosene into a raging fire.
Can terror magnify a threat? Indeed!
The aluminum box glinted up from the floor in the light of the electric torch; I pulled on my gloves and picked it up, but the lock was broken and the box was empty.
"Curses!" I swore, not hiding my disappointment.
"What are you on about now?" Ramon shuddered.
"Nothing at all?"
"That's right!" I snarled. In a fit of anger, I threw the box into the corner and walked around the office, but I still hadn’t come to any definite conclusion on who was responsible for all this mess: was it the Count, and he'd fled, or the malefic who'd come after his soul?
"Leo, we need to get out of here!" shouted my hulking partner, trying to hurry me along as I shuffled through the burned papers strewn about the floor, now wet from the spilled water.
"We do," I agreed with him and stuck the bullet the strangler had crushed into my pocket. "But first, let's check the house."
We went through the whole mansion, but there was no one on the third or second floors, and all the servants down below were dead. The strangler was enviably methodical. He hadn't left anything behind.
"Where is the Count's family?" Ramon asked as we walked into the guest room.
"His daughter's at a boarding school, and his wife's at the spa." I answered. "Continental Europe. Neither we nor the malefic will reach them now. Well, at least we won't. That much is for certain."
"Will you search for the Count?"
"What do you think?"
"It's your business," Ramon replied, not trying to convince me one way or the other. He then suddenly pointed to the body of the servant girl spread-eagled on the sofa. "Hold up!"
"What is it?"
"Point the torch at her neck!"
I did what he said, and immediately noticed two dark blue spots on the dead pale skin.
"Well, tear me to pieces!" Ramon gasped. "There was a vampire here!"
An unpleasant chill ran down my spine; I forced myself to touch the dead girl. The body had already gone cold, but unlike the other victims, this one had just started to get rigor mortis.
"What have you dragged me into, Leo?!" Ramon whispered in fear and anger. "Malefics and vampires, just think! Even in Europe, there are practically no vampires left. All the more so here!"
"Well, the werewolf flew in from the New World, so why couldn't this vampire have done something similar?" I muttered.
"What for? Why the devil would he do that? What's happening, Leo?"
I dismissed my partner's concern and hurried to the exit.
"Let's get out of here! It's getting light out already!"
"No, just a moment!"
"You just can't wait to get behind bars, can you?" I asked with a frown, looking my friend from top to bottom.
"Alright, we can talk later!" he decided. I just had to head for the exit, but he grabbed my hand and stopped me: "Are you sure the malefic was alone?" he asked and first looked outside, his Winchester at the ready.
"Why wouldn’t he be?" I asked, surprised.
"How could he get through so many people all alone?"
"The shadows," I reminded him. "He had the shadows helping him. You almost shot me because of one of them, remember?"
Ramon was clearly shaken by the unpleasant memory. He loaded another cartridge into the tubular magazine of his Winchester and muttered:
"In any case, don't yawn!"
I nodded and took the semi-automatic carbine from my shoulder. The strangler definitely wouldn't be hurt by a rifle, but vampires tended to surround themselves with mortal helpers. So, I had to be careful with the weapon in my hands...
The high veranda of the mansion faced east. At the very horizon, the clouds were already turning a shade of faint pink, and I said quietly:
"It's getting light out!"
My hulking partner nodded, letting me know that he had heard my words, but not lost vigilance; he didn't believe the legend that vampires could be hurt by sunlight. To be perfectly honest, neither did I. So, in no particular hurry, we walked back to the armored car, not taking our eyes off the trees and bushes near the path.
The birds had already begun their normal morning bickering. From the tenant farms, I heard a rooster crow. The risk of meeting a random passerby was growing with every minute. Approaching the gates, we threw back the latch and ran headlong for the car.
Ramon took a prudent look under the self-propelled carriage and gave a nod:
"All clear!"
Then, I opened the tailboard and threw my rifle in it and taking out the steering wheel in its place. My partner ran up and extended his Winchester.
"Take it," he said.
I accepted the gun and groaned out:
"What are you on about?" Ramon shuddered.
"The casing!" I screamed. "You left a casing in my uncle's office! Fingerprints!"
"Curse me!" Ramon exclaimed, going bed-sheet pale. But he immediately overcame his moment of hesitation, grabbed the wheel from me and got into the car.
"Let's go back! Now!" he shouted, affixing the steering wheel to the column.
"Start it up!" I called out, and jumped onto the passenger-side running board.
The engine chattered to life; to the jingle of its very frequent popping, the armored car drove up to the gates, easily tossed them aside and drove onto the grounds of the mansion. When it hit, we shook hard, and the self-propelled carriage even went off-road onto the grass. But Ramon managed to turn the wheel in time and get back on track.
A moment later, we had arrived at the mansion. There, Ramon sharply braked, jumped out of the cabin and ran at breakneck speed into the building. I ran around and sat in the driver's seat, turned the car around to prepare to leave and raised the front armor sheet, which had been down on the hood until that point. Driving at night with an obscured windshield wasn't possible, but now, it was getting light out. The villagers were all waking up, and the last thing I wanted was for some eagle-eyed tenant to describe us to a policeman
The front door slammed again, and Ramon ran fervently down from the veranda into the car.
"Drive!" he shouted.
"Did you find it?"
"Yes!" he replied, catching his breath. "Drive, I said!"
And so, we drove. We didn't stop until we reached the city, not even to pour water into the radiator. Eventually, though, we found a dark passageway in the back yard of a factory to park the vehicle in.
Ramon ran to a station on the neighboring intersection with a bucket, and I started pacing around the self-propelled carriage, massaging my cramped legs and looking all around. My back was in unbearable pain, my head felt full of molten lead, and my arms were shaking in exhaustion. I felt out of sorts, but not at all because of my personal wellbeing.
There was something else bothering me.
"What should we do with the self-propelled carriage?" I asked my partner after he’d come back with water. "Everyone knew the Count and I were at loggerheads; I wouldn't be surprised if they came to search my place today or tomorrow."
"Is that even possible?" my hulking partner asked in surprise.
"What do you think?" I furrowed my brow.
"No!" he waved his hand in annoyance. "What about the quarantine? How will they get inside?"
"Sooner or later, they'll find an illustrious person with immunity to the Diabolic Plague. The armored car is direct evidence. We left too many tracks at the estate."
"Get rid of it," Ramon suggested.
"Not an option," I refused. "We might need it again."
"Leo! This tin can could land us behind bars."
I didn't even listen.
"Your cousin from Foundry Town..." I snapped my fingers. "What if we brought the armored car to him?"
"Are you crazy?" Ramon's eyes grew round. "I'm not bringing family into this!"
"What about the coalhouse?"
The man began thinking, then nodded.
"You know, there are a couple other abandoned packhouses there," he muttered. "There's no way anyone will go into them before fall."
"Do they have separate vehicle entrances?" I clarified.
"Some do, yes," my friend confirmed. "Let's go!"
By that time, it had long been light outside and the recently-awoken people on the street were looking curiously at our police armored car, caked in mud from wheels to roof. Fortunately, there weren't many people in the outskirts near the coalhouse where Ramon now worked as a guard. Our only company was a pair of chatty mutts.
Ramon pointed at the set of gates, told me to wait and ran out. When he came back, he was holding a heavy keyring.
"Don't worry," he reassured me, undoing the rusty warehouse lock. That old drunk wouldn't wake up even if a ship's cannon went off next to his ear.
"Make copies during your shift."
"Of course."
The gates gave way with a ghastly screech. We had to put all our weight into throwing them open. I then drove the armored vehicle into the interior of the sooty packhouse. I turned off the engine and extended my partner a hand, all my energy sapped:
"Thank you! You really helped me out."
Ramon clenched my hand in his massive paw and asked:
"When will you be retrieving the reward for the banker's killer?"
"I'll deal with it this morning," I decided, looking at my timepiece and correcting myself: "Actually, it might be closer to lunch time."
"Don't draw it out," he demanded. "Alright?"
"Don't you doubt it," I promised, taking my cane and getting out of the cabin.
With our combined strength, we managed to close the warehouse doors, but only barely. Ramon put the lock back on, rubbed some coal dust on it and took a look at our handiwork.
"This will be fine," he decided.
It would have been good to take the right key off the ring now, but my weary thoughts got all mixed-up. My eyes were starting to close all on their own. The sleepless night and jitters had squeezed all the juice out of me. The only thing I really wanted now was to lie in bed and close my eyes.
So, I just waved my hand and headed home. Sleep.

BUT IT WASN'T so easy to get to bed.
Elizabeth-Maria knocked me off course. She examined me closely then declared in a tone that wouldn't bear objection:
"A glass of tea would do you good."
I looked at the reflection of my pale and peaked countenance, turned away from the mirror and nodded:
"Alright, make up a pot."
"You'll drink it in the kitchen. I hope that at least can teach you to come home on time!"
I didn't start a fight over it; I just wasn't in the mood. I silently hung my dusty jacket on a hanger, placed my cane in the umbrella stand, then got out of my mud-caked boots and walked into the kitchen.
I took a seat at the window, finished the hot sweet tea and stared thoughtlessly at the wet, black trees of my garden.
"I'm starting to see that coming back in the morning is a habit of yours!" the succubus noted pointedly as she lit the stove.
I stayed silent. I didn't want to talk, or move. Even the bed no longer called to me with the promise of slumber. It now seemed impossibly far away.
I sat at the window and drank tea.
Elizabeth Maria stopped trying to make me talk and set a thick cast-iron pan on the fire. She poured oil in, added spices, and the kitchen immediately filled with the smell of exotic goodness. A few minutes later, a glob of meat was slapped down on the red-hot metal, but I didn't pay the hissing and sizzling sounds the slightest bit of mind. Only when the girl set a plate of barely cooked steak before me did I express my incomprehension:
"Don't you think this is a bit rich for breakfast?"
"Look at yourself, you're all skin and bones!" the girl objected. "Also, I suspect this is not breakfast for you, but a late dinner."
"Where'd you get the idea I wanted to eat?"
"You smell of death," Elizabeth-Maria answered calmly, "and for a man, killing is but the prelude to a substantial repast. Even if you're killing something like yourself. It's an ancient custom."
"Like myself?" I asked, making a face. "Today, we killed a werewolf. A ghastly monster."
"Do you suppose you're so very different from him?" the girl couldn't resist joking back.
I squirmed.
"Yes, I do!" I threw out sharply. "I am very different. Is that clear?"
"As you say, dear," Elizabeth-Maria shrugged her shoulders and took a bottle of sherry from the drawer. "Yes, that reminds me! The red wine is still disappearing. You better bring your light-haired monkey to reason before I cut his hands off."
"The leprechaun and I haven't been able to find a common tongue recently," I shook my head.
To be honest, my childhood imaginary friend's trickery was now driving me totally crazy. I hadn't thought about the rude pipsqueak for many long years, and now couldn't get my head around why on earth he'd suddenly popped out of my subconscious. It scared me, because it meant I might lose control over my own gift. No nightmare I'd ever created before had stayed in the world for so long. No fantasy had seemed so real.
Elizabeth-Maria was just a clever succubus, but what was powering the leprechaun?
I had no answer to the question.
"That pipsqueak drinks like a horse," the girl complained, taking a seat opposite me with a glass of fortified wine and setting a dish of sauce before me. "Eat!"
I was about to refuse, but my stomach suddenly moaned out in hunger. And though I had never especially cared for undercooked meat – and when I cut into the steak, blood came out – I had to admit that it wasn’t at all bad. The spicy sauce had a flavor I couldn't place, but it was surprisingly subtle, and went with the steak perfectly.
"Have you ever heard of the Convent?" I asked the girl, cutting another bite of meat.
"The Convent?" Elizabeth Maria asked in confusion and sipped the wine, trying to hide her puzzlement. "Ideologues," she said after a pause so long I wasn't even really expecting her to answer.
"Ideologues?" I didn't understand.
"Typical malefics are simply happy to sell their pitiful little souls in exchange for a little bit of power and mortal prosperity. These are not like that. They tell tales of old. They want to bring those times back."
"Is that so?"
"That is precisely so," she attested. "And why do you ask?"
I just shrugged my shoulders, not telling her the dying werebeast's final words.
"Don't get involved with the Convent," Elizabeth-Maria warned me. "They're dangerous. Extremely dangerous. If you cross their path, they'll kill you and eat your soul."
"Where's all this sudden concern for my soul coming from?"
For a moment, from behind the imaginary exterior of a sweet-looking girl, her true appearance stepped out, revealing an infernal creature with the fiery red eyes of a hellbeast. They burned into me with unconcealed hatred.
"If they eat it, there’d be nothing left for me!" the succubus announced.
But it was very easy for me not to play along. I had a good understanding of fears and could say for certain that the succubus was afraid. And that she was afraid on her own account, not mine.
"Weren't you summoned from hell by a malefic?" I squinted. "Was he from the Convent?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
"You ran from him and he's searching for you. Is that right? What would happen if he finds you?"
"You won't manage to get into my head, Leo," Elizabeth-Maria said with a sweet smile. But I wasn't ready to change the topic.
"Perhaps he even put a bounty out on you." I posited, looking the succubus right in the eyes.
"You don't understand the first thing," the girl sighed. "Leo, you and I have an agreement. And that could only mean one thing..."
"And just what is that?"
"He is long dead," Elizabeth-Maria stated. "He pulled off his own head. You can't even imagine how great it was!"
"Please, spare me the details! We're at the table!"
"It wasn't I who started this conversation," the succubus reminded me dryly. "And no, he wasn't from the Convent. The arrogant twerp! Smart people choose devils and minor evil spirits as familiars. With them, you can do whatever you want! But he chose a succubus! The arrogant upstart!"
"But minor evil spirits don't give as much power, isn't that right?" I asked, surprised. "What's the good of that?"
"Power?" the girl laughed uncontrollably. "The source of power is the divine fire of the human soul. Familiars serve a different purpose."
"Please enlighten me, then."
But the girl had already finished her wine and gotten up from the table.
"Finish eating and go off to bed," she demanded. After that, she went over to the neighboring window, looked at the dead garden and suddenly stated: "Pain."
"What? Excuse me?" I asked, pretending not to have heard her.
"Pain," Elizabeth-Maria repeated. "This world is a constant source of pain, but when one's master casts a spell, that pain is multiplied ten-fold. Familiars absorb that pain. That's all. And not all the pain can be absorbed, just some. But even that causes unbearable suffering."
"Is that so?"
"Oh, yes! The burning tears your head to bits and pierces you through with hundreds of icy needles. Have you ever heard of Chinese water torture? The monotonous pain bears down on you and brings you to the level of an animal. When someone speaks to you, you can hear the words, but they mean nothing. In fact, you cannot even perceive that you really are hearing them."
"And are you suffering this pain now?"
"No, sweet Leo. Not at all. Thanks to this body," the girl said, turning away from the window and leading her hand from her chest to her thigh, "the pain left me. But it's around here somewhere. Look for yourself."
I nodded and got up from the table.
"Leo! Stay away from the Convent!" the succubus repeated. "Don't make them angry. Don't talk to them. Don't look at them, and don't even tread in their shadows. Just forget they exist. That's my advice to you."
"Shadows?" I perked up my ears. "Shadows with their own life force?"
Elizabeth-Maria didn't answer at all, turning away toward the window again.
I hesitated, but in the end, I didn't pester her with an interrogation. I just waved my hand and headed into the bedroom.
Malefics, their familiars and a strange burning. The dead Kira and her companion. The strangler's shadows. All these things could have been part of something bigger, but my weariness was stopping me from sorting it all out. The only thing I had the energy for was crawling up to bed, climbing into it and putting a pillow under my head.

Release: February 28, 2017
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The Sublime Electricity, Book 1: The Illustrious

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