Ghost Soldiers

 Ghost Soldiers (Nightfall Syndicate 2) by Keith Melton

Copyright © 2011 Keith Melton
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication

Chapter One: Loose Ends

Waiting in the darkness to kill a man was the hardest thing Maria Ricardi had ever done.

Still, Frank Cavallo needed killing, and she’d look him straight in the eye when she did it. She owed him that much—he’d been a loyal capo to her father. But she sure as hell wasn’t going to let him run Boston.

She was the new Ricardi boss, whether the old bastards liked it or not. And though bosses never bloodied their hands directly, she had a slightly different opinion when it came to blood.

A wide-faced clock hung on the wall, just above a bulletin board buried in old takeout menus and racing forms from Suffolk Downs and Wonderland. The solemn ticking marked the passing of every second, counting down the last moments of a man’s life.

She wanted this done and over with so she could hurry up and start forgetting it.

She leaned back in Frank Cavallo’s oversized executive chair and crossed her Giuseppe Zanotti crystal-heel motorcycle boots on his desk. The double-barreled shotgun lay on the particleboard desktop near her, smelling of gun oil, steel and plastic shell casings. One would think good old Frank, a bleeding asshole at the best of times, would see the overcompensating irony of his huge leather throne, being the little pissant that he was. Every other would-be boss from her late father’s organization was either dead, in jail or had finally gotten their asses out of the twelfth century and had sworn Maria their allegiance. No small feat, that. The men of Cosa Nostra didn’t follow a woman unless they were staring at her ass.

Outside the third-floor office window, night shrouded the rows of three-deckers and brick buildings in East Boston. A plane lifted off nearby at Logan, jet engines whining in the distance and blinking lights rising skyward against the dark clouds. For a moment she wanted nothing more than to be on that plane, headed…hell, headed anywhere but here.

No, not just anywhere. Headed for Karl Vance, wherever they’d sent him. Eastern Europe somewhere. The nights were so goddamn long without him…

Never mind that. She was here in Frank Cavallo’s crappy little office with its cheap wood paneling and overcompensating chair, and she’d end this damn war tonight. After tonight, her people would be in line, the threats and infighting would be over, and they could all get back to what the Ricardi family did best. Making money.

She swiveled from side to side, watching the airplane lights disappear from view. The chair skreeked. Piece of shit. Imitation leather too. The wall clock ticked on and on, marking time. Earlier, she’d watched as Xiesha cut down the barrels on the Remington SPR to the forend of the stock and patiently filed off the burrs. As Xiesha had worked, she’d muttered about screwing up the choke and pattern-spread on the side-by-side, but none of that made any difference to Maria. It would be close range anyway; there wouldn’t be much spread. She’d loaded both barrels with double aught buckshot, and the shotgun appeared short and mean in the darkness. The dual triggers, slightly offset, reminded her of her own fangs.

She ran her tongue over her fangs almost eagerly, and then frowned. Delgado would’ve approved. The memory of her former vampire master hammered a cold spike of dread into the center of her chest. Maybe she shouldn’t be so goddamn cavalier about this after all.

Voices echoed from the far end of the building. Then steps, unhurried steps. Three men, one of them tramping on the linoleum like a fat kid imitating a dinosaur.

“You fucking get a line on her.” Frank. He paused a few seconds, then, “Don’t worry about that. I got shooters coming outta my ass. Everybody’s a goddamn shooter here. I just need a motherfucking line on her, and then all my goddamn shooters can shoot something.”

Frank stopped shouting. Maria tracked the sound of their footfalls as they moved through the outer office. She could picture the dimly lit room with its stained Formica counters and the brown carpet ripe with the lingering scent of mold, and picture fat Frank snarling into his cell phone as he thudded along. Who was he calling this time? Who else wanted her dead?

Frank grunted, the sound of a pissed-off bull. “Nothing fancy. I want her floating tits-up in the Bay.”

The three sets of footsteps moved very close now, right outside the door. Maria waited, still facing out the third-story window at the city. Her heart lay still and silent in her chest.

“She’s cutting us to fucking pieces,” Frank said. “How hard can it be to get a line on her? She’s not fucking Elvis. Find her.”

The doorknob turned. The door swung open. On came the light, flooding the small room with harsh fluorescent illumination, the tubes buzzing overhead like flies on a corpse.

Frank didn’t notice her immediately. Maria watched him in the reflection of the window glass. She could smell him. Smell the blood in his veins, the rank sweat beneath his armpits, the salami and garlic that wafted out of his mouth with every breath. She smelled his two bodyguards as well. A drugstore aftershave she’d never liked. Clothing after a long day. More gun oil.

She smirked. Guns she liked.

She planted a boot on the edge of the desk and swung the chair slowly around. It skreeked again, but she hardly cared. The look on Frank Cavallo’s face was worth it.

“Hi, Frank.” She smiled without joy or humor, keeping the fangs hidden. For now. “Speak of the devil, huh?”

“Fuck.” The word whooshed out of him as if he’d just been kneed in the balls. He wore a brown, ill-fitting suit with his tie yanked askew, sporting far too many rings on his fat fingers—even a pinkie ring—the jewels flat and cold in the unforgiving light. His jowls sagged even more than she remembered, his dark eyes pushed deep in the folds of his face and glaring at her with unmistakable hatred. And…fear? The hatred she expected. She hated him right back. But only a dim, dark part of the vampire—a part she loathed with all her unbeating heart—felt any satisfaction at the sight of his fear.

“I was disappointed when you refused to back me,” she said. “I don’t think my father would’ve approved.”

The closer of the two bodyguards, Eddie Logario, lurched forward, his hand slipping to the small of his back, but Cavallo shook his head. Eddie let his hand fall away and instead spread out to the side, taking up position in front of a dusty and faded plastic palm tree. The guy guarding the hall hurried inside—a wiry man she didn’t recognize, sporting a huge mustache beneath his hooked nose.

“Your father’s dead, God rest his soul.” Frank’s gaze flicked over to the shotgun on the desk and then back to her. “Stupidest thing he ever did was bring you into the business.”

“Frank, that hurts.”

“Fuck you. You and the goddamn Lucattis tearing at each other. Ripping the city up. There’s gonna be nothing left, no way for decent working people to make a living.”

“Yeah? Since when did that describe you?” She tapped a finger on the arm of his chair. “Every little Caesar with grandiose delusions has been pushing. Every two-bit Lucatti who survived the war thinks he’ll hand out some heavy-duty payback. And now a bunch of my own people”—she pointed at Frank—“go and betray their oaths to the family.”

“You’re in my fucking chair.”

“You always were an observant guy.”

Frank stared at her. She could almost see the wheels grinding in his head, mired in sand and rust, but turning all the same.

“You got some balls, coming in here like this. Sitting in my chair. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do, out of respect for your father.” He smiled. “If you start begging now, I’ll let you suck me off before Eddie kills you.”

She threw back her head and laughed, dark, vicious laughter that reminded her of Delgado. She choked it off. “You’re the last of the disloyal bastards who’ve betrayed me and the family. After this, Boston’s mine, and we all go back to making that living you mentioned.”

Frank slashed a dismissive hand through the air and glanced at Eddie. “I’m tired of her shit. Kill her.”

Eddie grabbed behind him, and the second bodyguard reached into his natty sport coat. Maria shot out her hand with unnatural speed and seized the double-barreled shotgun before they’d even cleared their weapons. She swung the shotgun around on Eddie. His eyes widened, his lips skinned back from his teeth, and she very clearly heard the hiss of his last inhale through his open mouth.

She pulled both triggers. The shotgun roared and kicked. Eddie’s chest, throat and lower jaw disintegrated into a mist of blood. He crashed into the plastic palm, snapping its trunk, and fell against the wall, leaving a wide smear of red on the paneling as he crumpled in the corner. The metallic smell of blood made Maria’s fangs tingle.

The second bodyguard had his revolver out and fired at her. The shots sounded flat and undramatic after the shotgun.

The first couple of bullets went wide and plowed into the wall behind her. The third hit her in the upper chest, shattering her collarbone. The impact threw her back a step, twisting her shoulder away. It was the strangest sensation—she could feel the slug in her body, lodged in the back of her shoulder blade like a strange cold weight. But she felt no pain, only a tingle and pressure as her muscles and bones immediately began to knit back together, pushing the deformed bullet out to thud on the carpet. The skin over the entry wound fused last, tugging a little at the flesh around it. Only a neat .32 caliber-sized hole remained in her suede coat and blouse.

She looked at the mustached man and grinned.

Maybe it was the fangs. The sharp, musky smell of fear poured from him, mixing with the scent of blood. The revolver barrel wavered.

She planted one hand on the desk and vaulted over it. Frank spun around and ran through the door, staggering when his meaty shoulder smacked the doorjamb.

The last bodyguard shot again as she descended on him. The bullet tore through her stomach, ripping into her guts and making her grunt, but it couldn’t halt her momentum. She seized him by the throat with one hand and slammed him into the wall. The stink of terror hung around him like a cloud. He raised his pistol toward her head, but she squeezed her hand and her claws cut out of her nail beds and into the man’s throat. His carotid gave out with a gush of arterial spray that painted her face. His eyes unfocused. The pistol thumped to the floor.

She licked her lips and tasted the blood. Her stomach twisted tighter than a rope inside her, but she reluctantly let his body drop. Easy to imagine how she looked, spattered with blood, standing over the bodies of the men she’d just killed and licking her lips. Evil. She must have looked completely fucking evil. She set a hand on the wall to steady herself. The room whirled around her. The stench of fear, gunpowder and blood lingered in the air, distracting her. The desire to feed on the man at her feet almost overwhelmed her, but she clamped down on the driving instinct until it lessened. She still had business to finish.

Just one final thing, and then she could go home.

She ran out the door and vaulted the counter dividing the dingy, makeshift office. One of the office chairs lay on its side. No sign of Frank. He’d made it out the door, but she could hear his lungs laboring away like an old engine and his footsteps pounding down the corridor.

She caught him at the top of the stairs, just below a plaster stain that looked like a knife blade. He had one foot on the top step when she snatched his collar and jerked him back. The threads on his jacket ripped, but he stumbled back into her and would’ve flattened her if she’d still been human. Warm night air wafted in through an open window, bringing with it the scent of car exhaust and the Bay. Outside, traffic rumbled and hissed, and a distant siren wailed off into the night. She spun Frank Cavallo around to face her, holding him by the lapels of his coat as her claws punctured the fabric.

He stabbed toward her with an ice pick clutched in his thick fingers. She dropped her left hand with vampire speed and seized the ice pick just a millimeter before he drove it into her stomach.

“You get an A for effort, Frank, but steel just doesn’t cut it anymore.”

Lots of made guys carried ice picks so they couldn’t be nailed with a gun charge, but unless it were silver it would only rip another hole in her clothes. She pressed the tip of the steel spike backward with her thumb until it made a U.

Frank’s eyes flared wide. He dropped the ice pick, and it clattered down the stairs. “Anything! Anything you want. Just don’t—”

“I want to run the family. And you can’t give that to me, because it’s already mine.”

The sirens had grown louder, closer. Frank glanced out the grimy window as if hoping the cops would arrive in time. She could almost hear him praying for salvation.

“Oh, the beautiful irony,” Maria said softly. “But it’s too late.”

Frank sobbed. The fear stink coming off him seemed to wrap him in a cloud. She could smell the blood that had splashed her face when she’d killed the bodyguard, and both scents made her fangs ache. He flailed at her, scratching and clawing and slapping, but she pulled him forward effortlessly, all two hundred fifty plus pounds of him.

He grunted one last time when she drove her fangs into his throat and began to feed.

 *

She left Frank’s pale corpse sitting slumped against the wall at the top of the stairs, beneath the water stain on the plaster, a grim present for the cops. The sirens had gone silent just moments ago, but doors started slamming outside, police radios squawked and chattered, and the lights from the cruisers turned the stairwell into a flickering kaleidoscope of red and blue.

She walked back into Frank’s office, making no sound, her body seeming to vibrate with power now that she’d fed. Her mind flooded with sensations, as if she were thrown open to the world without blinders, shades or screens to diminish the intensity of life to a sane level. Odd, since she wasn’t even alive. Still, she noticed how the brown carpet had threads of green woven in, and looked shabbily iridescent, like the shell of some vagabond beetle. Blood, the ever-present scent of it, but also urine and spent gunpowder, so cloying it nearly choked her. The inner office was the worst. She paused and looked at what she’d done.

Eddie lay crumpled in the corner atop the crushed palm. His empty pupils stared up and to the side, peering at the paneling in wide-eyed horror. The mustached bodyguard sprawled unmoving on the carpet as the red bloodstain spread beneath his body. His revolver lay off to the side, its nickel plating marred with fingerprints and a single teardrop splash of red on the cylinder.

Maria looked away. She left the shotgun—it couldn’t be traced, and it seemed to gloat at her over the slaughter from its vantage point on the desk. Its twin barrels watched her like eyes, cruel and knowing.

Far below her, footsteps pounded up the stairs. She slipped out the way she’d come in, through the window at the back of the narrow, square office, and scaled directly up the scarred brick wall. The day’s heat still lingered in the bricks. The sensation made her linger despite the danger. She pressed her palms, and then her face, flat against the rough surface, remembering the feeling of sunlight on her skin. At last, she began to climb again, very aware of the dark energy pulse swirling around her, allowing her to defy the pull of gravity as she touched the rough brick and clambered onto the roof. The night sky stretched above her, strewn with clouds, and cold.

Four police cruisers had blockaded the street in front of the building. She doubted any of the cops would shed a tear for poor old Frank. The coroner might weep, though, in sorrow for his lower back, hauling the fat corpse around. She’d meant the thought to be funny, flippant, but it only made her stomach feel as if Frank had managed to pierce it with his ice pick.

She moved soundlessly to the power line connected to the corner of the building and stepped out onto the wire. Her body felt charged, strong, a battery humming with energy as she ran across the wire to the corner of the building across the street. The night brimmed with a thousand scents, a thousand sounds and sights all competing for her attention. It was always that way just after she’d fed.

She hated it almost as much as she loved it.

She stopped three buildings farther down the street and crouched on a roof ledge above a gutter to watch the commotion from the darkness. Safer to leave. Wiser to leave, but she felt as if she owed it somehow to the men she’d killed to look on for a while. To remember it. They’d been monsters, sure, but they’d finally met a real monster, and maybe they deserved some pity for that at least.

A crowd gathered and cars slowed as more sirens shrieked in and an ambulance arrived. One cop pushed out of the building’s front door and stood there leaning against a cruiser, his head down, staring at the cracked asphalt.

She’d done that. She’d done the things that made the cop’s heart hammer away and left him all but gasping for breath. Her hand came up and wiped at the blood on her lips and cheeks. She felt strangely hollow, as if her pale skin was only eggshell over emptiness. She turned and walked away, her steps silent on the roofing.

She had won. Boston was hers.

***

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