9mm Blues (Nightfall: Thorn Knights 1) by Keith Melton
Cranston, Rhode Island
The crunch and clack of teeth gnawing on bone were sounds Christopher Hill could happily go the rest of his life without ever hearing again. Even worse than the crunching was the contented, happy humming that drifted from the pit dug out of the graveyard earth. That damn humming made his skin crawl and his hands clamp down on the submachine gun he carried.
The moon hadn’t yet risen. Oakland Cemetery huddled in the dark, pressed between busy Broad Street and the black-glass-calm of Edgewood Lake around Roger Williams Park. A short chain link fence on the opposite side of the cemetery separated the gravestones from the steady stream of traffic. But the business lights and headlights, engine noise and the whisper of tires on asphalt, all these familiar city sights and sounds seemed strangely disconnected from him as he and Tashelle Parker hunted in the dark.
Except for Tashelle, he was alone here and knew it. Ordinary people went about their ordinary lives completely ignorant of what he and his fellow knights suffered to keep the wolves from the door and the monsters at bay.
He didn’t blame those people. He envied them.
He covered his friend with his suppressed MP7 from behind a marble tombstone as they leapfrogged positions, advancing toward the gaping hole through the scattering of headstones. They steadily closed in on the sounds of crunching and gnawing and the delighted cooing. It was time to buckle down, quit bitching, and focus.
His night vision goggles transformed the world into a ghostly green. He wished the rest of the team were here watching his six instead of it just being him and Tashelle, asses in the wind while they stalked a humming, hungry ghoul in the middle of a cemetery. Then again, wishes were for civilians. Soldiers got shit done.
Tashelle took cover, resting her crossbow on a granite tombstone. He advanced, scanning methodically, gun barrel always tracking back to the hole and the scattered dirt. Adrenaline popped and jumped in his veins. He fought to keep his breathing steady and his heart rate down but had no luck with it. The dark shape of a mausoleum rose beyond the feeding ghoul, a huge two-and-a-half story monument of crumbling mortar, missing granite blocks and busted out windows. The building loomed over the graves. He couldn’t shake the feeling that it was aware of the hunt and watching.
A dog began to howl. It sounded very close.
He took cover next to an obelisk spire. The disturbed grave was now only ten feet off. He glanced at Tashelle. Her dark skin shone almost sickly in the green of his night vision device. The upper part of her face was hidden behind the NVD hanging off her helmet. She wore the standard Thorn knight assault gear the same as he did: Kevlar body armor reinforced with ceramic plates, black fatigues, combat boots, web harness with ammo and gear, pistol holster strapped to her upper thigh. She carried a PSE TAC 15 crossbow. A long, weird, but effective weapon that shot arrows instead of bolts and used an AR-15 upper receiver. Very quiet, and—except when reloading—beat out any suppressed firearm for silence that he’d ever run across. A falcata hung in a sheath over her shoulder, and near her lower back dangled a sling with her Benelli semi-auto twelve gauge, just in case things went sideways on a rocket. Lots of gear. Moving silently in lots of gear was always a righteous pain in the ass.
Tashelle turned toward him, pointed two fingers at her night vision goggles and then pointed toward the dug-up grave. She made a flanking motion with her free hand.
He took one hand off his submachine gun and formed an OK, then followed with an exaggerated double nod so she could see his affirmative. This close, they had to run radio silent if they hoped to surprise their little ghoul buddy. Last thing he wanted was to spook the bone-chomper and end up chasing it through residential neighborhoods or into the damn zoo.
Before they advanced again, a brown and white dog trotted into view at the far end of the pit. Tashelle motioned for him to hold tight as the dog paced around in a nervous circle, whining, with its ears flattened and its tail down. It loosed a couple of mournful “barroooo” sounds. The humming from the pit stopped. The dog whined again and scurried backward, but didn’t flee the graveyard.
Chris realized he was gritting his teeth and holding his breath, waiting for the monster to scramble out of the pit and go for the dog. From this position, he wouldn’t have a good shot, because the dog would be in the fire zone. He breathed out quietly and glanced over at Tashelle, hoping she had an idea on how to handle this new problem.
“Shit,” she whispered, her word nearly inaudible over the city sounds and the dog’s strange, yowling barooos. But the ghoul returned to its humming song and bone-crunching, apparently indifferent to the noise outside the pit. The dog looked at Chris and his curled tail wagged briefly before stilling again. Beautiful dog, but he didn’t recognize the breed. Brave little bastard, too. It refused to run away from the monster in the hole.
“What’s the plan?” he whispered to her over his headset microphone.
“Damn mutt’s gonna blow our cover.” She scanned the street and buildings beyond the graveyard fence.
“Can’t risk hitting the dog. Maybe I can lure him off.”
“We’re not blowing this hunt over some stray. We get close, stay radio silent, and get this done. I don’t miss.”
He bit down on his reply. Tashelle had primary shooter designation on this Hunt-Kill-Run because of the silence of her crossbow, so she was calling the shots. Ideal outcome: they’d whack this filthy carrion eater with a two-foot arrow through its brainpan, destroy its body, and withdraw with no civilian ever hearing a sound. Anyway, that was the perfect world scenario. Since nothing ever played perfectly—as shown by this dog who’d wandered into their killzone—Chris carried a suppressed Heckler and Koch MP7. His weapon was straight up sierra hotel, but even shit hot and suppressed, the weapon’s armor-piercing rounds weren’t subsonic and would crack like an unmistakable rifle shot as soon as he popped off. They were also likely to rip right through that monster and hit the poor dog, and no dog was getting killed on his watch.
Tashelle moved out again. Chris followed, swinging around the obelisk with his MP7 up as he scanned left to right in short arcs. He shifted so the dog was no longer in his field of fire and moved toward the target. Slow and steady. The dog stared at him and whined, took a couple of steps toward the hole, then darted back and uttered that weird yowling noise again.
If only they’d had a mage to throw down some silence wards and seal off the area then this would’ve been cake. There’d be no need to worry about the noise from the dog or the humming ghoul or the blast of gunfire. But magicslinger Richards was with Captain Garcia on Specter One team, and Sergeant Drake and the rest of the Thorn knights had spread through Cranston and South Providence neighborhoods chasing down leads on the broodsire making all these damn ghouls. So no dice on the easy mode for this game.
Tashelle advanced on his left, twenty feet off as they executed the pincher maneuver, coming in from the flank so the dog stayed out of danger. The dog paced in circles, glancing from them to the pit again while growling low in its throat. The humming in the pit stopped again. Something made a disapproving “Shhhhhhh…” sound.
The hair on the back of Chris’s neck stood up and his hands tightened on the weapon grips.
Recently, people had been disappearing in the neighborhoods north of the cemetery, most of them past the I-95 freeway on rundown South Providence streets. He had no idea why the ghouls had escalated, switching from feasting on corpses to eating live, fresh meat, but he was here to bring the hammer down. Hard.
This particular ghoul seemed happy enough on the usual corpse diet, but that didn’t mean they’d be letting it go. He was very close now, each step revealing more of the unearthed grave, which was nothing like the neat, squared-off holes he always saw on TV. This hole resembled a bomb crater, nothing more than an uneven pit with dirt flung everywhere around it. The stench of rot and decay grew thicker, and the humming started again. The note of contented bliss in the humming caused the same deep revulsion as a spider crawling across his eye. The sound of tearing meat now added to the clash of teeth on bones, followed by gulping, then more atonal, happy humming.
He and Tashelle cleared the top of the hole in perfect synch. The ghoul squatted over the corpse in the casket. The top half of the coffin had been wrenched off its hinges. The ghoul clutched the dead man’s arm and chewed along the bicep.
It had been male once, lean, with short, dirty yellow hair, but its cheeks were flayed back from its jaws, revealing pointed teeth and a blackened tongue. The ghoul’s jagged, claw-like fingernails cut into the corpse’s arm, leaving smears of dirt on the dead flesh. As Chris watched, the ghoul ripped a bite of muscle away. It didn’t chew, but tossed its head back and gulped down the meat like a bird swallowing a fish. Lacerations scored along its ears and nose in angry red slashes. The ghoul was naked except for shredded, filthy blue jeans. Dirt covered it to the elbows and gore was smeared around its mouth. The grayish-white skin of its face, chest, and arms was scarified into strange, abstract patterns that reminded him of odd, fractal art.
The ghoul stopped humming. It lifted its head and sniffed the air, peering up from the shadows filling the hole. It flinched when it spotted them. The way its mouth had been flayed back gave it the look of an eternally grinning shark.
“Sorry,” it whispered, the word distorted by ravaged lips. “From inside. Sorry from inside.”
Tashelle stood at the edge of the hole, staring down at it, her finger on the crossbow trigger. Chris glanced at her, frowning. Hesitation was never a good sign.
The dog moved to the edge of the hole and began to pace back and forth, looking from them to the ghoul as if confident they’d do something to set this craziness to rights. The ghoul craned its neck and peered at the dog. Its black tongue seeped from its mouth in a dark, curling stain.
“Waste that scrote,” Chris said. He kept his voice calm, despite his heart thundering away and the adrenaline crashing through his body.
The ghoul jerked at the sound of his voice and it whipped its head around to stare at him. Drool poured from between its sharp teeth because it didn’t have any damn lips. He had it dead center in his gun sights, but he waited, because it wasn’t his shot. The ghoul rose from its squat and scrambled up the dirt slope toward him.
The dog whined again. It stepped too close to the edge. Its hindquarters lost traction and it started to fall into the pit. The ghoul spotted the motion and lunged for the dog. Chris aimed for the ghoul’s head, cursing the damn thing, cursing how fast this operation had gone sideways, increasing his pressure on the trigger—
Tashelle’s crossbow arrow hissed through the air and took the ghoul in the side of the head, straight through the temple. The ghoul went limp at once and slid in a small avalanche of loose brown dirt into the coffin, lying atop its meal. The arrowhead had pierced out the other side of its skull, making the ghoul look hideously absurd, as if it wore one of those stupid joke arrow-through-the-head props for a Halloween costume.
Chris ran to the dog and grabbed it around the middle and hauled it back onto stable ground. The dog began to lick his cheeks, its tongue flapping against the lenses of his night vision goggles. He pushed the goggles out of the way and tried to keep the trembling dog from climbing into his lap. He scanned the graveyard again, making sure nothing was sneaking up on their flanks or six o’clock while they’d been dealing with this ghoul.
The place stood empty except for tombstones and grass and decaying flowers. The crumbling mausoleum brooded behind its chain link fence, a silhouette in a sky brightened by the lights of Providence. The night was quiet except for the far-off rotor chop of a helicopter and the constant noise of traffic. He wanted to find those sounds comforting. Big cities always sounded of traffic, as unending as the rush, crash, hiss of waves at the beach. It meant people and technology and that things were right and normal…but he also knew that was an illusion.
“You all right?” he asked Tashelle. He did his best not to sound worried as he let his weapon dangle on the sling and petted the dog. It was dancing around him and trying to lick his hand off.
Tashelle pushed her night vision goggles up and flashed him a look that could’ve sparked tinder into flame. “I’m fucking fantastic, Hill. What do you think?”
Now there was the Tashelle he knew. “I think I want a beer, some pizza, and to watch the Yankees game I’m missing because of this shit.” The dog stared up at him with a worshipful expression, as if it were eager to come along for the food and the game. “Me and my new pal here.”
“I just spiked a monster eating a rotting corpse and you can think of food?” She shook her head and then frowned at the dog. “And forget about adopting a stray basenji. The captain’ll never let you keep an untrained dog.”
“This little fella’s part of the team now. Ain’t that right, boy?”
“That’s a bitch,” Tashelle said.
“Yeah, life’s a bitch.”
“No, you absolute dimwit. That dog is a bitch. A girl dog. Honest to God, Hill, do I need to draw you pictures?”
He bent down and rubbed the dog around the ears while she panted happily. “Hell, I knew that, pretty girl like this could never be mistaken for anything but a lady.”
Tashelle gave a disgusted grunt and shouldered her crossbow on its sling. Then she unstrapped her shotgun from where it rode at the small of her back and looked as though she was searching for an excuse to blast something. She’d always taken this stuff hard. His attempts to lighten things up rarely worked. He wondered if they’d work this time and decided to hell with it, he’d try anyway. God hated quitters and people who thought twice.
He gave her a wide grin. “So who’s gonna climb down there and drag that poor bastard out? Since you got to do all the shooting, I think it should be something like: you make the mess, you clean it up.” He shrugged. “Besides, I have my new dog to protect.”
“Tell you what. I’ll call it in. You do the manly heavy lifting. Boys like to play in the dirt, right?”
“You’re a terrible friend, you realize that?”
She favored him with a full-on smile and turned on her radio. “Specter One Actual, this is Specter Two-Zero, target neutralized, retrieving now, over.”
“Copy that, Specter Two-Zero,” Captain Garcia’s raspy voice came back over the encrypted frequency. “Cover your tracks and head to rally point, over.”
“Roger that. Specter Two-Zero out.”
Cover their tracks…easy to say. Chris scowled at the dead ghoul and the rotting corpse it had been eating, then he eyed the dirt scattered all around the hole. Mounds of it. In some places it had been flung in wide fanning patterns. Damn thing had made this mess digging with its claws like a frenzied animal. Bastard must’ve been hungry.
“I’m gonna need a bulldozer,” he said.
“Maybe your new pet can help.”
He glanced at the dog. “You gonna help, pretty lady?” The dog blinked at him, mouth open, tongue out. He could’ve sworn it was grinning. “I like your enthusiasm, fur-face.”
“Hate to break things up with your new girlfriend,” Tashelle said, “but we don’t have time to screw around filling the grave back in. Just get the ghoul. I’ll cover you so you don’t bust your ass and then get jumped by another monster sneaking up.” She flipped down her night vision goggles and gave him a mocking thumbs up before turning away and scanning their surroundings.
He muttered a curse and scrambled down into the hole. Twice he lost his balance and nearly fell onto the bodies. The stink of decaying flesh and damp earth filled his nose, so thick it was nearly suffocating. He fought back a wave of nausea that threatened to have him spewing every meal he’d ever eaten. So much for his appetite. The dog watched him from the edge of the pit. After a moment, she tried to follow him until he told her to stay. And she did. So at least one thing had gone his way tonight.
He confirmed the ghoul was dead by poking it in one staring eye with the suppressor on the barrel of his submachine gun. No reaction, so it wasn’t playing possum. Not that he’d doubted it, with that arrow sticking through its dome, but this was protocol. Some monsters still twitched with a bit of life, even after taking a truckload of damage. He didn’t want to end up a midnight snack.
He slung his weapon and flipped the ghoul over onto its face. Small avalanches of dirt slid down around him, scraping and pattering off his legs and into the coffin.
“Hurry up, Hill.” Tension crackled in Tashelle’s voice.
“Give me a sec.”
His boots kept sinking into the loose dirt, and there wasn’t much room. He grabbed the ghoul by the back of its filthy jeans. Climbing out again while hauling the ghoul was like trying to forge a trail up a mountain slope through drifts of new snow. For every couple of feet he climbed, he slid back half a foot. His shoulders burned with the strain of dragging the awkward dead weight. More than once he nearly lost his grip, and the ghoul almost tumbled to the bottom of the grave again.
The top edge of the hole was the worst, crumbling and falling away beneath him. Tashelle had to hurry over and help pull him up while the dog circled and growled at the dead monster. Chris grunted as he heaved the ghoul the rest of the way out of the hole, then he plopped down on his ass, breathing hard. The burn in his muscles slowly faded. Wet dirt covered him from the waist downward. He smelled like a swamp.
“Thanks for all the help,” he said sourly. “What a team.”
She flipped up her NVD again and gave him an evil grin. “What’s protocol? Someone always on overwatch, guarding your back, so quit your bitchin.” She pointed at the ghoul. “Bad enough we’re leaving a dug-up grave with a chewed-on corpse. Can’t leave a monster to end up all over the news.”
“No shit, but I’ve got incendiaries. Just burn and go.”
“Too public, too risky.” She flipped down her night vision goggles again and raised her assault shotgun. “C’mon, let’s bug the hell out.”
“What about the dog?”
“I know you’re lonely, Hill, but that ain’t your dog.” She turned and started through the rows of graves and tombstones, sweeping her shotgun barrel back and forth as she advanced. He followed, dragging the ghoul by the feet and struggling not to make much noise. The dead ghoul bumped and thudded against the ground and scraped through the grass. The dragging would leave a trail even the greenest forensic tech or rookie cop would spot, but he and Tashelle would be long gone by then.
The dog padded quietly alongside him. Her ears twitched at the sounds of traffic. She kept glancing up at him as if to ask: what now?
They made their way toward their SUV parked on the empty, tree-lined FC Greene Memorial Boulevard. He dragged the body past the last of the tombstones and into the deeper darkness of the oak trees. Their black Chevy Suburban sat on a carpet of oak leaves and acorns. The water on the other side of the street reflected the few stars that outshone the light pollution.
A cop cruiser rolled slowly up the street with its searchlight on, sweeping along the trees on the cemetery-side.
Shit. He hauled the ghoul behind a cluster of thick bushes while Tashelle darted behind a tree trunk. The dog turned to look at him with its head cocked to the side.
“C’mere, girl,” he whispered, gesturing her toward him. His heart was pounding so hard he could feel the pulse in his temples, seeming to hammer against the sides of his helmet. The dog watched him for a long moment more, then she glanced at the cop car before casually padding over to him.
Good girl. He stroked her head and pulled her closer. She squirmed a bit, but didn’t try and break free of their cover.
The cruiser rolled along, its tires whispering on the road. It was a Crown Victoria with “City of Cranston” emblazoned beneath the bold blue word POLICE on the side. Tashelle pressed up against the tree trunk as if trying to merge with the bark, her shotgun held close to her body. He stayed low to the ground and held his breath as the searchlight beam swept past. They weren’t cleared to engage civilian authorities—it was always avoid and disengage ASAP protocols. He didn’t want to imagine what would happen if the entire mission was burned because they’d stumbled into contact with the cops during their sortie.
The white beam of light jerked over to a thicker stand of trees, throwing shadows against the mausoleum. The cruiser slowed as it closed in on their SUV. Chris’s heart thudded in shotgun kicks. His mouth tasted like metal shavings. The stink coming off the ghoul made it hard to breathe without coughing or gagging.
His headset burst to life, making him flinch. “Specter Two-Zero, this is Specter One Actual, what’s your status, over?”
Tashelle gave a hushed reply. “Specter One Actual, this is Specter Two-Zero. Visual on a police unit stopped in our area, probably running the plates on the SUV. Confirm rules of engagement, over.”
“Specter Two-Zero, you are cleared for limited engagement. Tires and engine block damage only. No casualties. I repeat, no civilian casualties, over.”
“Copy that. Tires and engine block only. Specter Two-Zero out.”
Chris risked another look. The cruiser had stopped behind the SUV, flooding it with the searchlight.
Dammit. He glanced at Tashelle. She still pressed against the tree truck, hiding from view. Her night vision goggles made her appear strange and insect-like.
The cruiser’s door squealed as it opened. The cop climbed out and walked around their SUV with his flashlight raised, shining the beam inside. All their gear and weapons were concealed, but it still raised the hair on the back of his neck at having a cop this close. The officer finished circling the SUV and turned his flashlight toward the cemetery. Right in their direction.
Chris slowly raised his weapon, taking care to aim only at the cop cruiser. It might’ve just been dumb bad luck that had landed a cop here when they’d been on active hunt. Either that or some civvie on the road had seen something and called it in. He hated when things went tits up for no discernable reason.
The officer’s radio squawked. He turned away and answered as he hurried back to his cruiser and scrambled inside. A moment later the car pulled onto the road and raced away, up to a roundabout and then it vanished into the distance. Chris sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Too damn close. The dog licked his face, giving him a wet cheek, soggy chinstrap, and a healthy appreciation for the power of dog-breath.
Tashelle signaled him. They broke from cover and advanced toward the SUV again. He moved as fast as he could while dragging a ghoul and keeping to the deeper shadows of the trees. If the cop was playing games and circling around for another pass, then things would get really interesting, really fast. But Chris thought they’d finally caught a break. Their fake license plates must’ve checked out, and the cop had either received a call more important than this one or he really hadn’t wanted to go stumbling through the cemetery at this hour.
Tashelle reached the SUV first. She checked it, then scanned the street, trees, and lake for threats before giving him the all-clear signal. He hauled the ghoul the rest of the way with the dog trotting along at his side. Tashelle popped open the back of the SUV, and together they heaved the body onto a blue tarp covering the floor. They used the extra flaps to conceal the corpse and secured the tarp with bungee cords before quietly shutting the hatch.
“Poor bastard.” In his mind he could hear the ghoul pleading “Sorry from inside,” followed by the thunk of the arrow piercing its skull.
“C’mon,” Tashelle said. “Let’s get gone before that cop decides to roll through again.”
They tossed their weapons and gear into the SUV. The stink of graveyard mud filled the air. The dog whined, watching Chris with plaintive eyes.
He squatted down and petted her again. No collar. Out at this late hour. He didn’t want to leave her behind. “My dog’s coming with us.”
“That’s not your dog, you moron.” She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and continued more calmly. “Tell you what. If that dog is dumb enough to get in here with you and that stinking ghoul, then by all means, have yourself a new pet that’s just as fool-headed as you are.”
“I’m really feeling the love tonight, Tashelle,” he said as he climbed into the SUV’s passenger side. He patted his thigh and whistled. The dog clambered into the SUV. Her tongue flopped out and her curved tail wagged like mad. Chris looked at Tashelle with his eyebrows raised.
“The captain’s gonna shit bricks.” She started the engine, cracked the tinted windows, and swung a U-turn onto the road. She headed south, away from the cemetery and the cop.
He closed his eyes, petted his new doggie friend, and tried not to breathe through his nose. The sooner they ditched this ghoul, the better. The night wasn’t even over yet and already he was tired of smelling horrible things.
After a moment, he lowered his window far enough so the dog could put her head out in the wind. He only wished he could do the same.