9mm Blues

9mmBlues-ByKeithMelton-200x300

9mm Blues
Thorn Knights Book One
Keith Melton

Flesh-eating ghouls. A kidnapped child. A knight’s honor caught in the crossfire…

Christopher Hill is a knight in the Order of the Thorn—the sacred order of soldiers armed with submachine guns, swords, and magic. Their mission is simple: destroy the ancient, profane evils that prey upon humanity.

But that mission becomes far more complicated when a young boy is kidnapped by flesh-eating ghouls, turning a routine search-and-destroy mission into a nightmare standoff. Barricaded inside a run-down house, the ghouls gain a deadly upper hand, and while the body count rises, Hill finds himself caught in a power struggle within the order that puts his life, and his honor, at risk, and threatens both the mission and the boy Hill has vowed to see home safe, no matter what…

*

9mm Blues should be available at some point tonight (or if I’m really unlucky, tomorrow morning). Meanwhile, here’s the cover and blurb. Hope you enjoy the book. It’s an urban fantasy thriller. I hope it is a suspenseful and satisfying read.

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Spanner Jack: Chapter Four

Creative Commons License
Spanner Jack by Keith Melton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Spanner Jack

by Keith Melton




If you missed it…

Introduction information is here

Chapter One is here

Chapter Two

Chapter Three






Chapter Four

Old Friends




The truck’s tires screamed when Brenna stood on the brakes. She jumped the curb anyway, jouncing hard, her teeth clacking together and barely missing the tip of her tongue. The back-end threatened to fishtail, but she kept grim, white-knuckled control even as the side of the building kissed the edge of her mirror and rear fender. She fought the truck to a stop half on the sidewalk in front of a building with mint-green cinderblock walls in Park Hill. The parking lot was empty except for a violently pink ’78 Trans Am.

Brenna knew how drunk or crazy she must look, almost ramming a building with a plenty of wide open asphalt around it, but she wanted to be close to the door in case she had to carry her dog inside. She glanced at Tau, eyeing his harness. “You okay, boy? Got a little rough there, sorry.”

Tau started wagging his tail. She petted him, her throat tight as she tried not to burst into sobs of relief. Tail wagging, that had to be good, right? Maybe…maybe that thing inside him wouldn’t hurt him. Maybe his stomach acid had killed it.

She freed him from his harness and climbed out of the truck, then lifted Tau so he wouldn’t…jar something or hurt himself jumping down. She could’ve sworn Tau gave her a look of doggie disapproval, but then he started licking her face.

“Ew. What did I tell you about the drool-face-slathering thing?” she said, trying not to laugh. If she started laughing, she’d start crying. “You’re not butter, and I’m not toast.”

He continued licking until she set him down. A groan escaped her lips as she straightened. Her lower back hurt like hell, the slashes on her thigh and gouge on her hip still throbbed, despite the pain-killer. Her absurd makeshift towel and rope bandages were stained dark red, her jeans were covered with blood—hers and the chaur’s—and she reeked like a combination of a pickle jar and an abattoir. Now that the adrenaline had gone, every pain and ache seemed eager to outdo one another for her attention, though the slash and punctures from the chaur still reigned supreme. She glanced around, nervous about drawing stares, maybe police attention. The wacko wounded lady with the robo-legs, splashed with blood, racing around like a get-away driver, maybe even abducting a helpless, three-legged dog, who knew? Oh the freaky depravity. But the street had only the occasional car cruising past, the drivers not seeming to notice her.

The other buildings showed their age in the late afternoon sunlight, weary as old cowboys, with cracked shingles, fading paint, frayed awnings, and signs that had seen better decades. She couldn’t see into their windows, the sun out here was still too bright, so she had no idea if she were being watched. She grabbed her backpack and slung it across her shoulder, the cans inside rattling, then she wrapped the quad in an old flannel work shirt she’d found on the floor that smelled of engine oil. Better get inside fast.

Brenna hurried to the front door of the hideous pile of mint green cinderblocks. The words Freedom Organizer and Worker’s Rights Advocate were painted on the glass panel. Broken shards glinted from cracks in the walkway concrete and peeked from the yellowing weeds. Probably from the last time someone with beef had thrown a brick through the door. She cupped her hand around her eyes and pressed her forehead against the glass, peering inside. The front desk was empty, so she started to bang on the door.

No answer. She glanced at the pink Trans Am. That was Lavonne’s car. She started to sweat and shifted her weight from one leg to the other, her nerve endings pulsing with low-grade pain, a constant dark murmur in the back of her mind. The bundled up quad seemed ridiculously heavy as she tried to keep it concealed from view. Surely everyone out there had to be staring at her, knowing she was hiding a gun. Guns and blood sent the wrong message. Tau whined, sensing her growing unease. She banged harder, rattling the glass.

Finally someone shouted. “I’m coming! I’m coming! Don’t bust my door!”

Brenna recognized Lavonne’s voice and her breath caught as relief swept through her. Her friend appeared a moment later, walking with the rapid, purposeful stride of the highly annoyed. She wore a sharp grey business suit that complimented her brown skin and eyes and matching heels. Brenna tried not to dwell on how she must appear to Lavonne, willing her friend not to running screaming from the zombie knocking on her door. Lavonne halted when she saw Brenna. She frowned, then hurried to the door and unlocked it.

“Brenna, what the hell?” Lavonne’s normally smooth, resonant voice cracked on the last word. “What happened to you? Get in here! You’re bleeding.”

“‘It’s just a flesh wound,’” Brenna quoted as she stepped inside the muggy office with Tau following close by her side. Though she nearly sagged with weary relief when Lavonne locked the door again behind her.

“Don’t b.s. me. How badly are you hurt?”

“It looks worse than it is. I stopped the bleeding, popped some antibiotics.” Now that she was off the street, behind walls again, she felt both exhausted and ravenous. She moved deeper into the office, looking the place over.

Tackboard lined the closest wall, layered with every kind of announcement like old leaves beneath an oak tree. Federal Regulation posters, a framed copy of the Bill of Rights, Unionize Now and Worker’s Unite and other flyers and photocopies and articles about the Patriot Act and health care. An American flag hung in a glass wall-mounted case. The desks were cheap particle board, covered with stain rings from coffee mugs, scattered pens, and overflowing in/out boxes. The brown carpet smelled of coffee, and the scent of ink from inkjet printers mixed with the hot ozone reek of the ancient photocopier, wheezing like an old man with pneumonia with every copy.

Lavonne waved her to a chair behind one of the desks, but Brenna didn’t sit. She placed the wrapped quad down on the desk, atop a plateau of paperwork.

Lavonne eyed the bundle with a frown but only said, “Why aren’t you at the hospital?”

“Tau’s hurt.” Brenna knelt next to him, ignoring the sudden spike of pain from her thigh and hip. “Something got inside him.”

Inside him? What?”

“I don’t know what it was.” She hugged her dog and started shaking, all at once, as if some part of her brain had thrown a switch. Her hands jittered, the muscles in her stomach clenched, and the only part of her that felt solid were her artificial legs. She tried to get a hold of herself again and couldn’t.

“You look like sun-fried shit,” Lavonne said, her voice hushed. She dropped to her knees beside Brenna and wrapped her and Tau in a big hug. Lavonne smelled of wood smoke—always had, even in the hottest days of summer where only a particularly demented arsonist would dream of burning wood. The word for that was inexplicable. Or maybe weird. Brenna wasn’t complaining though. The smell was soothing, and so was the hug. Lavonne’s brown skin felt warm, another comfort, because Brenna felt as if her core temperature had plunged ten degrees since killing the chaur.

Lavonne leaned back, still with a hand on each of them, and fixed her with a no-nonsense stare. “What happened, girl? The truth—who did this to you?”

“Please. Tau. There’s some kind of eel in him. It got inside him after I killed the chaur—”

“A chaur here? What the ever-loving fuck?”

“—and it got down his throat before I could get it out. For awhile it seemed like he was hurting bad, but then…but then he seemed okay again. I’m scared sick. What if it’s killing him and I can’t see it?”

Lavonne’s face grayed with shock. All the comfort Brenna had gained from the hug evaporated in an instant. Without a word, Lavonne stood and nearly ran to the door, her heels thudding a rapid rhythm on the floor. She double-checked that the door was locked, and then scanned the street. The wood smoke scent grew stronger, and for an instant Lavonne’s face appeared to distort, as if her skin were a digital image suddenly distorted by compression artifacts, the smooth lines replaced by blockiness and pixelization. Her eyes seemed to widen and flash orange, the shade of traffic cones, before snapping back to normal. The blocky distortion vanished. She once again appeared a hundred and ten percent Homo sapiens, except for that wood smoke smell that overpowered even her high-end perfume. Brenna didn’t know what species Lavonne was, though sometimes the curiosity ate at her like acid. It was a huge breach of Earthside decorum to outright ask another gatejumper. All she knew for certain was that Lavonne was a fellow refugee from Entropy, a tide pool of a city brimming with strange life, brackish in the places where cultures overlapped.

“What are you looking for?” Brenna asked, although she already suspected the answer.

“To see if you were followed.” She turned away from the window. “This eel, was it red or see-through? Did it crawl out of the chaur?”

“Translucent, all veiny, and covered with slime.” Fear twisted her guts into knots. “What is it?”

“Probably a nopauk worm. Dammit. Did you see anything else around? A person watching? Maybe an earth animal that seemed too intelligent, lingering and watching you?”

“There was a van. Something was inside, I didn’t see what.” The feeling of sick dread boiling in her stomach grew worse. “Can you get that thing out of Tau?”

“No. I’m sorry, I can’t. My skills don’t even begin to run that way.”

Brenna closed her eyes. Her thoughts had exploded into panic again, spinning in her mind as fast as a fan blade.

“Listen,” Lavonne said. “We have to find someone skilled enough to remove it safely. An Earthsider vet would only kill him trying to get it out, even if they didn’t freak and run screaming to the authorities. Now, about the van. Did it follow you?”

“No. And I drove fast, took a half dozen random turns to throw off a tail. I watched for it and didn’t see it. It’s a white RepairPro van. Hard to miss.” She fought the urge to throw up all over the floor. Get a hold of yourself. Think of Tau. “What can I do to save my dog? There has to be something. Don’t lie to me, is he going to die?”

“I don’t know. Not if we get it out, and we have some breathing room, I think. A nopauk’s a parasite from some fungus jungle place—I forget the name. Rare, though, and banned like you wouldn’t believe. They seize control of a native host, mind and body, and use it to breed. But I’ve never heard information claiming they can control species not native to their planet. Too specialized, maybe? So your dog won’t stop being your dog.”

“But someone can get it out of him, right? I mean, you know someone who can save him, right? I’ll pay anything. Do anything.”

“Easy with the promises, girl. True, I know someone. A xenochirurgeon. A real fascist prick too. We have some…history. Thing is, he’s in Portland.”

Oregon. So far away. “That’s a thousand plus mile hike. Can Tau make it that long?”

“I don’t know. I’m no expert.” Lavonne shook her head. “I ran up against something like this once, long time ago. But that’s not the worst of this either. There’s another species, intelligent, advanced, that has the ability to use nopauk worms as…I don’t know, remote control devices. It’s some sick stuff. They’re called Matriquin and they are scary. Very damn scary, hush-hush assassins. They’re parasite bodyriders that can appropriate, subvert, control almost anything with a spine. They’re kill on sight, persona non grata in Entropy, and that’s saying something.”

“And one of those bodyriders sent the chaur after me?”

“Had to be. They do horrible stuff, messy as shit spellwork, crimes against life. Blood gates. Weird, sick summoning rituals.”

“How do you know all this? I’ve never heard of them.”

“Ran across one in work I used to do. From before.” Lavonne’s words were too offhand, dismissive in a way that only drew attention to them. Brenna didn’t press her, though she itched to do so. Entropyside life was Entropyside life—all in the past, and dangerous to talk about.

Lavonne moved to another window and peered out at the street again. “You said a white van?”

“With RepairPro on the side. You see it?” She looked, but the parking lot was still empty save for Lavonne’s pink Trans Am and her truck, but her friend’s unease revved up her own, until every sound seemed pregnant with threat. Was that a scuttling on the roof? A creaking hinge from the back of the building? She glanced at her father’s gun on the desk, wondering if she should grab it.

“No. Nothing.” Lavonne wheeled away from the window again and charged the coffee pot. She dumped black coffee into a cup, splashing it wildly, before throwing it straight back like a shot. She slammed the cup down again hard enough to send little plastic creamers rolling across the table and then glared at Brenna. “What did you do to bring one of those vicious bastards down on you?”

“Nothing. I don’t know. I was just working.”

Lavonne scowled and for an instant her face distorted into pixelization before returning to normal, so fast Brenna might’ve believed she’d never seen it in the first place. The hairs on the back of her arms stood up. She wasn’t afraid…but that was a little unsettling to watch.

“Working for the Emissary?” Lavonne demanded.

“For Dr. Annabelle Price.”

“Same thing.” Lavonne held up a hand before Brenna could protest. “I still have some connections, so I know a bit about Price. Working for that thug…that jzarekahl posli fat cat piece of sewage…almost as bad as working for those Order of the Thorn assassins. Or the Guilds.”

Brenna sucked in breath. She set her hand on Tau, who looked up at her. When she thought she had herself under control, she forced out her reply. “I came here because I need help, not lectures—”

“Clearly you do need lectures if you’re coming to me, ripped to shreds, almost eaten by a chaur again, with a parasite in your dog. My oath in the gutter, what did you expect with that cockroach Emissary involved?” She clenched her fists and began to pace in front of a desk, slashing the air with sharp gestures. “And Price. Still trying for the portal superhighway? That stupid bitch. Dammit, Brenna.” Her voice turned mocking. “The crossroads of interdimentional capitalism and science. It’s so fucking fascist I could choke.”

“Can we not fight about it for once? I came to you because I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

“My help comes with commentary. If you can’t deal, then scoot off. Go see if the Emissary will save your ass.”

“You don’t mean that.” But Brenna stood anyway, her heart hammering away, part of her as though she were cracking inside, breaking into shards at her friend’s words, her coldness. And where would she go now? She didn’t even have the name of the guy who might help Tau.

Lavonne rubbed her hand over her eyes. When she looked at Brenna again, she wore a smile—strained, sad, but a smile nonetheless. “Are you crazy? Sit down. Of course I don’t mean that.” She sighed and flopped down in a nearby office chair. One of the wheels gave an outraged squeak. “The bodyrider will still be after you, if you’re the target. This is damn scary stuff. A few minutes ago I was stressed out applying for marching permits, and now this…”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t have anyone else to trust.” She hated the desperation in her voice, but it was true. “Not anyone who’d understand.”

“I know. But I’m pissed off and I’m terrified. These bodyrider things…well, you know the chaur. These are ten times worse.” She glanced at Brenna’s legs, took a deep breath, and shook her head as if clearing it. “Still, it’s good to see you, even though I’m really hating the circumstances. I see you’re wearing your fancy heels.”

Brenna snorted, willing to run with the change in subject if it meant sidestepping an ugly argument. “I see you still have zero tact.”

“When was tact ever useful among friends?” Lavonne grinned. “You know, when I first met you, I thought you wore those ugly things for attention. A ‘look at me, I’m different’ vibe. Now I can’t decide if you’re crazy or if you just have terrible taste.”

“Wrong on both counts. The real answer’s so simple it’s boring.”

“And? Don’t make me beat it out of you with a pamphlet. Because I will.”

“I don’t have time to hide who I am. This way, it’s all out in the open. Someone has a problem with me and how I look, what I am, they don’t even have to talk to me.” Her lips twisted into a wry smile. “Hey look, I ended up whining on the shrink’s couch after all.”

“You whining? That’ll be the day.” Lavonne drew herself up, shoulders back, and lifted a hand as if she were about to address an audience of far more than Brenna and her dog. “As a concerned social activist and card-carrying bleeding heart, I’ve given my life to deleting prejudice and discrimination from society forever. People everywhere should be allowed to wear the legs they wish, how they wish, and where they wish without fear of condemnation or reprisals. How’s that sound? Ridiculously pompous or pompously ridiculous?”

“I’m going with both.”

“Score for me. So let me reveal something embarrassing to make up for being such an insufferably nosy and bombastic jerk. Like always. Let’s see…how about this? When I first arrived Earthside, of course I needed a new name. So I did I grab a baby name book? Search the Internet for most common given names? Not at all. I got my hands on a Thesaurus. You know my first choice?”

Brenna shook her head, grinning.

“Hoi Polloi. Can you believe it? I meant well, but damn I was such an idiot.” She barked a laugh, then followed it with a sigh. “You know what mannerism I like best, Earthside? Sighing. It seems to sum everything up perfectly sometimes. Like now, with you. Brenna girl, the way I see it, you have a couple of choices, neither of them good.”

“Let’s hear ’em.” She already knew she’d choose whatever was best for Tau, no matter what.

“One, you try to contact that pompous ass of a scalpel shaman in Portland. See if he’ll agree to help get the parasite out of your dog. Even if he agrees, it’s going to cost you. He’s a swaggering monument to cold-hearted avarice, but he’s good at what he does, and it kills me to admit it. His name’s Dr. Jason Freely.”

She nodded. She didn’t have a lot of money, but maybe…maybe they could work something out. “What’s the other choice?”

“Scurry back to the Emissary. He’ll have people who could remove it. Probably. But if he sent the bodyrider after you? You’re ever-loving screwed, kid.”

“Why would he do that? He warned me about it—told me not to mess with the box and to get the hell outta the lab. As if he suspected something. And he was on his way to the lab when he called me.”

Lavonne’s lip curled. “Funny how he didn’t warn you in time, don’t you think? And did you ever see him arrive?”

“No, because I ran like hell. I mean, the Emissary’s an arrogant jerk, but why would he gun for me? I’m nobody.”

“Maybe he’s erasing a mess he made. Something he doesn’t want his overlords to discover, or maybe the Guilds, or the investment syndicates, or hell, even the Sidhe learning about. I’m sure the list is long. Price is probably dead by now.”

“I talked to her. Right before the Emissary called and things crashed all off the rails. She was obsessed with some package that hadn’t arrived, but she was okay.”

“Sounds like a good reason for the Emissary to kill her.”

“That’s paranoid—”

“You’re not paranoid enough. Not by far. Somebody tried to murder you with a pet monster. Did you hit your head and forget that? How many fingers am I holding up? What’s wrong with your brain?”

“The package was only parts. She’s a scientist. No one would want to murder her. She couldn’t even match her socks when she was focused on an equation.”

“And you’re certain no one wanted to eliminate her, super spy? You have no idea how dangerous these people are. Any of them. All of them. You’d be chum for the sharks and you’d never even know why. That would cut my heart out, you know, because I couldn’t do anything to save you. Only sing for you, and that never brings anything back but memories.”

Brenna sagged into a chair and rested her head on her hand. The painkiller she’d popped in her trailer had lost most of its effectiveness. Her puncture wounds throbbed in agony, the slash on her thigh burned, and it seemed like every other major muscle ached all the way down to her bones. She stank like sweat and fear and blood. She was hungry, she wanted a shower, her brain felt like it had been microwaved, and she had to pee. She crossed her legs and gritted her teeth. Damn biology.

“What about returning to Entropy?” She’d do it. Only for Tau. “They could heal him there.”

“I have no idea how you’d find a way to portal-slip back there. Not without big-league help from that cockroach Emissary or those bloody-tongued Guilds. The gatejumper who smuggled me is long gone. The Thorn blew up his car when he happened to be driving it.” She shook her head. “Maybe a kyveryn, if you could find one, and good luck with that. Unless you and Ms. Mad Scientist actually succeeded with a stable wormhole and you’re being sly about it to make me sound like an ass.”

“No. She was closing in, but…” She shook her head and stared at a red stapler sitting half in, half out of a coffee cup, as if the stapler were biting the side of the mug.

“Right then. You should know better than anyone exactly how feasible gatejumping is from Earthside. Like I might’ve mentioned, you’re ever-fucking loved, to twist a phrase.”

Brenna didn’t answer. She watched as Tau wandered to a desk and nosed off a squishy stress ball. It hit the carpet and bounced away. He scooped it up, wagging his tail and eyeing her as if she might break from her wild escape to play a little fetch. She smiled at him.

“It’s the xeno-whatever, then,” she finally said. “How do I contact him?”

Lavonne moved to her desk. She found her smart phone, looked something up, and wrote on a neon green sticky note. “His number and address. Last I checked, the number was still good, but that was a couple of months ago. I might’ve called him a few choice epithets last time we talked, so dropping my name might not help your cause. He’d probably raise his prices if he knew you were my friend.”

“Sounds like a real prince.” She took the sticky note and stood. A cramp in her bladder shoved through all the other pain signals and informed her brain she desperately needed some facility time. “Got a restroom I can use?”

Lavonne pointed to a door leading into the back area of the office. “Through there, last on the right.”

Brenna moved to pick up the quad. Her first step sent agony from the point where her lower leg met the Andurgo limb all the way to her neck. She hissed in breath and took another step, working out the stiffness that had settled in after she’d sat down.

Lavonne arched an eyebrow. “You’re going to haul that gun along to our tiny bathroom? You’re going to accidently blow a hole in yourself trying to find a place to set it down.”

She hesitated, feeling both absurd and defiant, but in the end she left the quad behind. “Stay with Tau. I’ll be right back.”

The bathroom was small, clean, and smelled of flowery air freshener, though it was a good five degrees hotter inside. She glanced at the a/c vent. It was open, but didn’t seem to be pushing much air out. The washbasin was close enough to brush her shoulder when she sat on the toilet. One of the two fluorescent light tubes flickered every few seconds, mounted in a water-stained dropped ceiling.

It was only after she’d started to pee that she caught a strong whiff of vinegar. Goose bumps broke out along her arms and thighs. The anemic breeze wheezing out of the a/c vent stank like acetic acid. Her heart began to pound harder.

A clang sounded somewhere inside the dropped ceiling, followed by the groan of metal under stress. She stared at the panels, not daring to blink, breathing faster but keeping very still. No way. There was no way this was happening—

Another clang,, followed by a series of tings and a low screech, like a screwdriver scraping across a metal plate. Something was up there. Something was in the ceiling—inside the ductwork. She looked at the vent and began to sweat. Her palms were clammy. She tried to control her breathing, but it came too fast anyway.

Why the hell hadn’t she brought the gun? Here she was with God-knew-what overhead and getting closer, caught with her pants down and no weapons. Being killed on the toilet would be most pathetic way to go she could imagine, but she’d deserve it for being an idiot and second-guessing herself. She’d left the gun her father had given her.

She stood slowly, heart hammering, hammering, and started to pull up her underwear and jeans. Her jeans snagged on her left artificial leg and she almost lost her balance.

The metal-on-metal clangs and groans were very close now, right near the vent grate. She shifted and pulled harder, yanking her jeans up and stepping backward while buttoning them, all while staring at the vent, not daring to blink. The darkness behind the metal louvers seemed to seethe and churn. Something was right there.

She stepped badly and her leg scraped the door. The noises inside the vent stopped. She reached behind her. Her hand brushed the door panel but she couldn’t find the damn knob. Her fingers kept sliding over the panel, but she couldn’t find the damn knob and she didn’t dare look away from the vent.

She could see something in there now. Faintly glowing lines striping a dark shape—

Liquid sprayed from the vent, as if someone had gulped a mouthful and spit it back out. She jerked backward. Most of the spray hit the wall beside her, but a few droplets spattered across her left arm. She wiped it away with a grunt of disgust, then smeared her hand along the wall. The liquid was clear. It ran down the wall in long trailing drips. There was no pain from the places the droplets had hit her, just a tingling warmth on her arm and her palm. Her heart was thundering away, and a moment later she felt light-headed. Dizzy.

Two long blades punched through the louvers with a metallic screech. The vent buckled as something slammed it, but it held, though the metal straining and buckling around the screws. She spun to the door, but overturned and lost her balance. She caught herself by slamming her forearm against the opposite wall. The room whirled around her as if she were drunk, her thoughts growing fuzzy and disconnected. She grabbed at the elusive knob, missed, fumbled again, and finally got it. She wrenched the door open. The vent behind her gave away with a screech.

She lunged into the hallway, caught her balance, and then wheeled to seize the door again. Before she could shut it, something leapt out of the vent and landed on the toilet. The creature was the size of a cocker spaniel, its oval-shaped body colored the gray of cremation ashes, but covered in luminous stripes. It flailed around, trying to steady itself. Two of its triangular, blade-like legs scraped the inside of the toilet, another gouged the wall, and the last rasped at the tiles. Its single yellow eye swiveled in a deep eye socket and locked on her. A long brown tongue whipped out of its mouth toward her as she slammed the door. It smacked the panel with a wet, smooching sound.

She staggered backward. The hallway reeled around her, as though she were on a ship caught in rough seas. Her thoughts drifted in a growing fog in her mind. The monster had poisoned or drugged her with its spray. Even that thought didn’t set off the fireworks of terror it should have. Her heart rate had slowed. She didn’t feel afraid. Only floaty. That was exactly how she felt.

Floaty.

Something started ramming into the bathroom door. A distant part of her brain screamed at her to run. She heard Lavonne cursing and calling her name from somewhere far away. Then she heard Tau barking. Rapid, angry alarm-barks. The sound steadied her a little. She stumbled toward the door at the end of the hall that lead to the outer office. It felt as if she were walking on stilts. The walls around her seemed to melt and run, sweating from huge gaping holes in the drywall, distorting in melted-candy flows.

Focus on Tau. Focus on the sound of his barking.

Her father stood in front of the office door. His back was to her, and it had been years and years, but she recognized him at once. He was staring at the panel. Not moving. Not making a sound. She knew with the certainty of bad dreams that she had to reach him. She wanted to see him again more than anything. More than anything except saving Tau… Pain opened inside her, but again it was distant, almost unremarkable and easy to box away and ignore.

Behind her, the bathroom door crashed open. The knob punched a hole in the drywall with a resounding crunch.

She risked walking faster. She’d almost reached her father. She lifted her hand to touch him. “Daddy?”

Tau barking, barking. The walls started vibrating like speakers blasting a bass-heavy song.

The office door opened. Arms shot out, through her father, and grabbed her. Her father vanished and she never saw his face. Never had the chance. The arms dragged her across the threshold, but her legs tangled and she started to fall. As she fell, she caught a glimpse of the gray, one-eyed monster spiking its way down the carpet, quicker than she would’ve imagined, and headed straight for her.

She tumbled to the ground with a groan more weary than pained, because even here on the old carpet, she was floaty. Floaty was a state of mind. Floaty made dying seem…seem not so terrifying after all. She turned her head to see the one-eyed monster coming for her. It was close, more than halfway to her.

Lavonne slammed the door and leaned against it. A second later “Brenna! It’s here! Get the gun!”

But Brenna laughed, because she already knew it was here, silly. Was Lavonne an idiot? Of course she knew it was here. It had nearly got her on the toilet. But at least she wouldn’t die on the old porcelain throne with her pants around her ankles. And that was good.

Tau moved to her side, barking and growling at the hall door. Something began ramming the office hall door, each booming strike shaking the door in its frame. Tau. She…She had to keep on keeping on. For him. Keep fighting. Save him. He needed her.

She pushed herself to her feet. The room spun in sickening, dizzying circles. She had to close her eyes until she felt steadier, then lurched to the desk and picked up the quad her father had built. It felt reassuringly sturdy in her hands. A solid piece of gunsmithing. She stared down at it, her thoughts still floating, circling, making it difficult to concentrate. That monster’s spray had drugged her. All her thoughts drifted away from her like bubbles blown by a kid.

And she couldn’t remember how to use the gun, couldn’t remember if she’d loaded it, couldn’t think which of the four barrels she’d selected or how to disengage the safety.

She could not remember how to use her father’s gun.

Wasn’t that the funniest thing?



* * *Copyright 2013 Keith Melton* * *


Please feel free to leave a comment if you wish! Likes/dislikes, mistakes, etc. No pressure, though. You have my thanks for reading!

Spanner Jack: Chapter Three

Creative Commons LicenseSpanner Jack by Keith Melton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.




If you missed it…

Introduction information

Chapter One

Chapter Two




Chapter Three

Bodyrider


The man inside the stolen van tipped his cowboy hat back and watched as the big Chevy truck charged from the driveway and swung a hard left onto the street, singing to him with the scream of tires and the rumble-menace of a heavy duty engine. He ignored the challenge. He was not one for car chases. Besides, he could sense the dark energy radiation from one of his nopauk worms leaking from inside the escaping truck, leaving an energy-tell he could track at his leisure.

He pushed another hot stuffed cherry pepper into his mouth, closed his eyes, and reveled in the spicy burn, the tastes of provolone and prosciutto ham jittering on his tongue. Vinegar drooled down his chin and he wiped it away.

So it seemed the brane-jumping little anarchist Brenna McLain had survived his special present. Disappointing. He’d gone through so much trouble to accomplish this with style—the portal-birth, incubating the nopauk worms in the chaur as a failsafe, having the package delivered especially for her—that he felt the failure most keenly. Unfortunate. He’d gambled that she’d be so surprised to face the same breed of creature which had crippled her, so paralyzed by terror, that there’d be neither hope nor chance of escape.

He’d underestimated her and he was shamed. It wouldn’t happen again. He was of the Matriquin Lon, granted the name Citirict when he’d been exalted from his home on the graphite plains, near the black cliffs over Kalsk, the great sea of churning liquid hydrocarbons. His history was proud, his lineage of note. The Prime had seeded the multiverse with DNA variations an age ago, and Citirict was proof that the vertebrates, especially the mammals that infested this particular planet, held no monopoly over magic. He would redeem this…slip.

Citirict climbed out of the van and stretched his body, running his tongue over his teeth to catch the last hint of stuffed cherry pepper taste. Mammals from this side of the brane did not fit particularly well and were not comfortable to ride, but he did enjoy eating. Yes, very much indeed.

His boot heels clomped on the pavement as he strolled toward the dirty grey cinderblock mass of the Chell lab. Decent camouflage in this area of rundown buildings and old warehouses for a project so…destabilizing. No matter, he’d found the lab anyway, using his current host’s mind like a computer for access to information and concepts, language and mores. This was not unique to the Matriquin. Many bodyrider species did the same, controlling a bigger host as though it were a mix of armor and computer database for missions in hostile territories. The key, and a process Citirict handled exceedingly well, was to immerse one’s existence within the host’s mind-culture-language matrix, partially morphing into that species through a…a marinating in the pattern of thought and all the complex interactions and traditions that shaded something as chaotic as a culture. This aided in navigation through strange and obscure societies and mores. Adapt or die.

He tried the building’s front door, found it locked, headed to the back and discovered an unsecured access door. An open invitation. Delectable. He peered at the hash mark prints of blood from the anarchist gate jumper’s silly artificial legs, and then at the blood smeared on the door. He pushed his cowboy hat back out of the way. He leaned close to the metal and opened his host’s mouth as wide as his jaw would allow, sucking in the scent, then he flicked his host’s tongue out to lick a dark splatter from the metal. His first taste of his quarry’s lifeblood. Interesting. She’d been afraid, near out of her mind with worry about her… friend? No, about her pet mammal…dog…Labrador. Yes, Labrador Retriever. Named…Towel, or something close. But he could read nothing else. No specifics about the box or her anarchist puppetmaster, the Dr. Annabel Price. He sneered. Dr. Price, an internal and external disruptive. No matter what light Price was exhibited within, she remained a destabilizing disruptive.

He slipped inside the workshop and smelled the death. Nopauk worms lay curled into crescent moon shapes all across the concrete floor. Two of them had been smashed. The rest had died for lack of hosts. Unfortunate, but the nopauk could not live free of a host and out of octadecene for long. He sympathized, but he had others to replace these. That didn’t mean he could risk incaution with scarce resources. In their true ecosystem, nopauk eventually turned a host into a hollow, mindless creature that would shamble toward the nearest pool of octadecene and drown itself so the nopauk could breed in a bloated, long-chain hydrocarbon-soaked corpse. But until that final stage, they were susceptible to the telepathic urging of a Matriquin Lon. The same held true in this dimension, on this planet with its arid atmosphere, so miserly with moisture, and no octadecene oceans or free mineral oil pools to be seen.

He made his way deeper into the building until he found the ravaged chaur. He squatted beside it and examined the wounds Price’s lackey had inflicted with her crude tools. Again, the human female had been far more determined than he’d expected, given information from the Event Horizon dossier he’d memorized. Though that file had been incomplete and outdated, and the guild was far more concerned about the market anarchist Annabel Price.

Still, Brenna McLain’s competence irked him. Gate-birthing another isikisht would be a highly taxing inconvenience, and doing so would cost him. She’d fought the chaur and won, fair enough, and he was forced to award her a measure of respect. Most mammals didn’t impress him. Indeed, most vertebrates failed to impress him. When one had ridden as many spines as Citirict had, one grew a mite jaded. Understandably so.

Still, his path from this point forward branched significantly. Clearly he needed to birth a new isikisht…a new…“proxy flesh tool”, perhaps would be the best of several rough translations. Bringing another isikisht would cost him this current host body as a blood gate. He’d need access to another body before he could jump hosts. Fortunately he had an idea of a perfect prospect to lure for that task. He smiled.

Brenna McLain was only a secondary objective of this mission phase, Dr. Price the primary. But what if he attempted to achieve his goals through riding Brenna instead of having her consumed, as had been the original strategy? Provocative. Since Price was being shy and elusive, and because he had successful tracking on Brenna thanks to the nopauk worm, it made sense to birth an isikisht which could subdue Brenna until he could attach himself without further damaging her body.

Chipper. He had a revised plan, an evolved plan, though still with a bit of messy work to accomplish before enacting it. He headed back outside and crossed the street to the van. Halfway there he noticed a long black car idling far down the street. A…limousine. He could sense the curving, twisting fields of dark energy and mystigen surrounding the vehicle. Something very powerful was concealed inside. The Emissary, perhaps? What was the appropriate acknowledging gesture to a being of such power? He searched his host’s memories until he found what he hoped was the correct one, raised his hand and waved it back and forth. The limousine slid from the curb, turned around, and drove away. He watched until it turned the corner and disappeared from view.

He wasn’t worried. He would be seeing the Emissary again.

Until then, there was work to be done. He pulled the van to the rear of the workshop, discovered how to work the bay doors, and collected all the dead nopauk worms and loaded them into the back. Next he dragged the chaur corpse onto a large piece of plastic sheeting and rolled it over and over until it was wrapped securely inside, then deadlifted his fallen isikisht into the van. Such tasks took a toll on his host. He had to continually spur the body’s glands into dumping epinephrine hormone into the veins to help with moving the heavy load.

Citirict headed into the lab after finishing with the chaur, bringing along a glass jar that contained a writhing nopauk worm submerged in octadecene to keep it alive. Inside the lab he peered at the equipment, made the requisite sneers at the crude laser, disparaged the primitive cyclotron, and finally lifted the phone. Adapt or die. That was the challenge of any ecosystem. Here he was, adapting. Here he was, talking on a telephone.

He took out the business card for the company that had unwittingly delivered his chaur and dialed the number, though it took several attempts because his host-body’s hands were still shaking from all the epinephrine he’d squeezed into its veins. He reviewed a selection of his host’s memories until he felt confident he grasped the social concepts behind them, then waited until the human he wanted answered.

“Macky here. Business or pleasure? If it’s business, I’m busy.”

“A business follow up that could be pleasure,” Citirict said. “The woman who was at the Chell laboratory on East 49th forgot to give you a…gratuity…for your exemplary service.”

“A tip? Cool enough, because that package was hella heavy.”

Citirict paused, sorting through the slang until he felt comfortable continuing. “Customarily we tip generously, but in your case we would fancy giving…one hundred dollars. I wanted to check and see if you might return to the lab and receive your due. Apologies for the inconvenience. Unfortunately, I will not be here for long—leaving town on business—but if you could arrive in say, fifteen minutes, I could still present you what you are owed.”

“For a hundred spot? Hell yeah, I’ll be there in ten. These other fools can wait. You’re not jerking my chain are you? A hundred, honest to God?”

Again he sorted through the idiom for meaning. “Honest. To make up for having to travel here again. A…productive man deserves a…sufficient reward.”

“I hear that. Look for me in ten,” the man said and disconnected.

Citirict pushed the END button on the phone, paused, then licked the receiver mouthpiece, running his tongue back and forth over the plastic. He caught far less than when he’d tasted Brenna’s blood, only vague, fading feelings. Apprehension. Annoyance. Too tenuous and too obscure to be much good to him.

He left the lab. Some minor set up was required for this next phase, so he needed to prepare carefully. He placed the glass jar with the swimming nopauk worm on a suitable workbench and covered it with frayed rag, then walked to the front door to watch for the delivery truck’s arrival. He pulled out his host’s wallet and examined the remaining currency inside. From another pocket he withdrew the steel handcuffs he’d procured after taking this body, checked them over while visualizing how he meant to use them, then concealed them once again. Everything was ready. Patience was all that remained. While he waited, he siphoned endorphins, tweaked the pituitary, and created a hormone cocktail in one of his gland pouches and let his consciousness drift in the bliss streams for a time.

When the delivery truck swung into the driveway, he reluctantly shook off his mind’s radiant ecstasy stupor. The driver hopped out of the truck. Citirict waved him inside with his widest smile.

“Hey man, everybody happy?” the driver asked. Citirict recognized him from earlier, when he’d paid the man a significant fee to unofficially deliver the package containing the chaur. “That woman with the robo-legs didn’t seem jazzed about getting the box.”

“Everyone is simply…ecstatic. Completely joyous.”

The man eyed him, frowning. Citirict realized he must’ve given some tell that had struck the man as strange. No matter. As the Matriquin said, things always grew stranger.

“Please, follow me, then you may continue on your way.” He didn’t give the man time to protest, simply turned and headed deeper into the building, toward the heavy workbench with his hidden glass jar.

“Man, this place looks even worse than before,” the delivery man said, glancing around. “You throw a crazy office party or something? Is that fucking blood?”

“Lubricant spill. Messy, but no source of alarm.” He pulled his host’s worn leather wallet and withdrew a one hundred dollar bill. He put the wallet away and set the hundred on a cleared section of workbench. “For you.”

The man reached for the bill. As soon as he touched it, Citirict whipped the steel handcuffs from his pocket and snapped the bracelet around the man’s wrist. The delivery man had barely started to react to the handcuff when Citirict locked the other wrist bracelet around a steel workbench strut. Now there was no turning back from the path ahead.

“Man, what the fuck?” The delivery man yanked his arm back, but barely shifted the workbench.

“Adapt or die,” Citirict said.

He pulled the rag off the glass jar and unscrewed the lid, then commanded his host body to kneel as he held the jar close to his chest. He began to pump phenolykka through his host body’s veins through his proboscis, directly into the spinal nerves and vertebral artery. Next he reached with his mind to pierce a rift, drawing mystigen from the ovasea, through an expanding wormhole, using it to fuel the gate matrix he sculpted inside the core of his host’s life energy wheel. He sensed the tear opening inside the host’s body, in the center of his chest, and spreading, parting like opening lips, tissue and organs torn aside as the gate expanded. Finally the split gaped like a wound in the host body’s muscle and skin, still ripping wider, ever wider.

The delivery man’s mouth was moving and he seemed to be yelling. Citirict couldn’t understand him because host’s hearing drowned in a high-pitched warbling whine, dots danced in bursting patterns in front of his eyes, and blood sprayed from his nose and ears. Time was limited. He pulled the nopauk worm from the jar, anchored part of his consciousness to it, and threw it into the gate.

Part of his mind followed the nopauk through the wormhole. He shuddered and endured the sickening vertigo as time seemed to stretch, warp and distort, everything around him seeming to drag to a stop. Then he was through the brane, into a place of towering fungus dotted with glowing green and yellow phosphorescence supported by lattices of fleshy, gilled limbs and gently swaying tuber vines, glistening with their trap secretions, and deep pools of octadecene. His mind reeled with joy at returning home, but he caught hold of his triumph, because he was only here for a moment, to pick up an isikisht and return to Earth. He found the one he sought with minimal searching. A tchosok, dangling from beneath a huge fungus cap, its triangular-bladed feet stabbing into the ridged gills, as it fished in the oil pool with a long whiplike tongue, pumping stupor-inducing secretions beneath the surface to catch bvole. Citirict reached out with his mind, and the nopauk worm sang in subsonics that couldn’t affect creatures of Earth, but which paralyzed the tchosok. The nopoak worm continued singing its subsonic, hypnotic song until it slid up the tchosok’s leg and wriggled into its gullet. The tchosok shuddered as his worm drilled into its nervous system and hijacked its brain.

He lured the tchosok to him, singing to it through the worm in mesmerizing subsonic patterns that told it how food and warmth and safety lay through the blood gate.

The tchosok traveled through the wormhole, scuttling from the blood gate in his host’s chest, and clattered onto the concrete floor. It hesitated, its antennae wavering as it caressed the alien metals and concrete. The tchosok was gray, striped with pale glowing white, standing on four triangular, blade-like legs, a long brown tongue wavering from out of its mouth, covered in thick, dark mucus. It had only a single yellow eye atop its oval body, and it seemed to be staring at the ceiling. The delivery man watched the tchosok crawl out of the incubated bloodgate inside his host’s chest, and he started to shriek. Those gasping shrieks bounced and echoed around the room, piercing, frenzied.

Citirick released the blood gate. His host body slowly slumped to the ground, its heart pulverized, ribcage shattered, lungs burst, all torn asunder by the gate he’d used it to birth his new proxy flesh tool. He withdrew one spike from the body’s spine, the other from the artery, and his proboscis from the pituitary gland. His view shifted from the harsh, disorienting glare of what humans called the visible light spectrum and back to sensible infrareds. He climbed from his host’s throat and out through his mouth. This next phase had to be fast. His target host couldn’t run because of the handcuff, but Citirick could still be injured if he wasn’t careful and quick.

He scrambled around the rim of the bloodstained cowboy hat and leapt off. His legs clicked on the concrete as he raced toward the delivery man. The man tried to stomp him flat, but Citirict was too quick. In a blink he was up the man’s coverall leg, climbing fast around his back so this chosen host couldn’t smash him off as he flailed and panicked, then curving around the neck, up the face as the man screamed. He writhed into the open mouth, down the man’s throat, digging in at the back and resetting his spike in the spinal nerves, his sharp tongue piercing the artery, self-sealing against it, pumping in norcalkyl hormones and seizing control of the brain as he shoved the other consciousness into the outer darkness of the mind.

He stretched, settling his way into his new host body, flexing his fingers, licking his teeth. Host switching was always traumatic, for everyone involved, but it wasn’t possible to open a bloodgate to his native world and bring back an isikisht without turning a host inside out. Now he had control of the tchosok he’d need to hunt and subdue the outlaw gate-jumper Brenna without killing her, since she’d proven to be more than a match for a chaur. When he rode her, he’d use her to lure Dr. Price to him. From there…well, from there he’d only have one final step to success. And then, bliss.

He dragged the corpse of his former host closer to him, then searched the pockets until he found the ring of handcuff keys and set himself free. The tchosok watched him, waiting for his telepathic command transmitted through the nopauk parasite. Yes, things were sailing forward smoothly again. He’d adapted, and so he continued.

Citirict knelt beside the corpse. He reached out and adjusted the cowboy hat over the man’s face and empty, staring eyes, so that if one ignored the horrific trauma to the man’s body, one might almost believe him to be sleeping.

“My ever-thanks for the ride,” he whispered to it.

He walked outside again and climbed into the van. The jar of hot stuffed cherry peppers sat on the seat beside him. They resembled green eyeballs with pink pupils floating in cloudy solution. He unscrewed the cap, dug one out, and pushed it into his mouth. Juice squirted as he bit down and sharp, tangy heat flooded his mouth. He closed his eyes and groaned. Because that was a divine sensation. That was pure gastronomical delight. He grinned, wiped away a bit of vinegar-tinged drool that had escaped his lips and ran down his chin. What he loved most about riding a human was eating things. Eating and eating so many varied things.

He started the engine and went to pick up the trail of his nopauk worm, eager to hunt down the anarchist Brenna with her assumed Earth surname McLain. Events were still moving in a direction he liked, despite a few setbacks. Tantalizing. Sometimes he felt as if the whole world lay spread upon a table before him, waiting to be eaten.



* * *Copyright 2013 Keith Melton* * *


Please feel free to leave a comment if you wish! Likes/dislikes, mistakes, etc. No pressure, though. You have my thanks for reading!

Spanner Jack: Chapter Two

Creative Commons License
Spanner Jack by Keith Melton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Spanner Jack

by Keith Melton


If you missed it…

Introduction information is here

Chapter One is here



Chapter Two

Fight or Flight




The chaur’s legs hammered the floor, the talons that curved from its rear legs scraping the cement as it charged Brenna. It loosed another chattering keee-kee-kee cry—savage, joyous, and utterly alien.

She waited, trying to time her move as the monster closed. Adrenaline ripped through her veins. Her breath came fast and harsh, her heart revved full-bore, and everything seemed to happen at speeds both very fast and exceedingly slow, her world changing into a Mobius strip of time-lapse photography, one curve fast forward, the other slow motion.

Only one chance at this. If she missed she was dead.

The chaur’s mouth gaped wide. Brenna pivoted at the last moment and threw herself along the chaur’s flank. Its jaws snapped shut where her thigh had been an instant before, wicked teeth closing like scissors snicking shut.

She shoved the reciprocating saw toward it, pressing the trigger so hard it creased a dent in her fingers. The saw shuddered to life and the blade ripped into the chaur’s slime-slick flesh. The monster’s forward momentum almost dragged the saw out of her hands, but she tightened her grip and wrenched the saw along its body. The blade ate through muscle and foul skin, spraying the chaur’s red-brown blood. More blood and fluids seeped into the saw’s motor, and a new smell competed with the overwhelming vinegar reek—a ghastly burned-sugar stink that made her want to vomit up every piece of candy she’d ever eaten.

The chaur wailed. Its heavy tail smashed the legs of a workbench, sending parts and metal shavings and screws flying. They rained to the concrete in pings and clangs and ticks, an arrhythmic steel hail. The chaur tried to pull free from the saw blade and clamp its teeth on her arm. Those teeth would’ve taken her arm off at the shoulder but she half dodged, half fell out of reach. Its hot, fetid breath gagged her. Red-brown blood stained her to the elbows, but she kept her finger on the trigger, forcing the saw deeper into the monster, grimly remembering how it had attacked her dog. How another of these bastards had taken her legs off at the knees. She screamed, a sound of pent up fury and rage, so loud that pain flared in her throat.

Her reciprocating saw died with the blade lodged deep in the chaur’s flank. She’d cut a wound halfway along its body before her forward motion had yanked the cord out of the electrical outlet. Tau was barking—furious deep-throated barks—and trying to reach her side, but the chaur blocked him. She scrambled to her feet, ready to distract the monster or attack it with her bare hands if it turned on Tau again.

The chaur staggered and collapsed. Blood poured from its side, more seeped from the eye she’d smashed with her wrench, while the blood dripping from the drill hole was lost in the general gore. Her stomach did a queasy somersault. The chaur uttered a strange grumble, shuddered, and went still.

She tried to edge past the monster to reach Tau but only managed a stumbling sort of shuffle. The wounds on her thighs blared agony to her brain in strident shrieks. Those pain-shrieks gained in volume as the adrenaline fled and exhaustion washed through her, turning her muscles loose and rubbery.

Part of her brain was certain the chaur would snap back to life and lunge at her like the non-quite-dead monster at the end of a horror movie, but the chaur remained motionless. She’d opened a window into the guts of the damn thing as if she’d been on a psychotic remodeling rampage. Bob Vila would be proud, and good old Captain Ahab had nothing on her. The wacky thoughts made her cough out a laugh. She reached Tau and knelt beside him, groaning at the flare of pain from her wounds. He licked her face as she hugged him. She was shaking. Tau was shaking. She’d never loved her dog more, though. The emotion was so huge it blanked out every other thought.

The corpse shuddered, and a rasping sound filled the air, as though a double-cut file ran along a two-by-four. She flinched and nearly lost her balance. No way. There was no way that monster was alive.

Tau started to growl, trying to wedge himself between her and the vinegar-reeking corpse. The chaur’s rightside flank began shift and ripple as something alive squirmed beneath the slimy skin.

She stood, slowly, because her strength seemed to pour out of her through a hundred drill holes. Strange gore-streaked eels slid from the jagged hole in chaur’s body and hit the floor with wet plops. A dozen or more of them. Her vision washed out in varying grays, the world turning to concrete slush. She bit down on her tongue, the pain bringing the world back into sharp focus, blood filling her mouth.

The eels had eyeless heads vaguely shaped like drill bits, covered with rippling feelers no wider than a hair, skin so pale it was translucent, showing dark roadmaps of veins and shadowy hints of interior organs. Their sleek, slimy bodies made moist little squelches as they undulated across the floor. A groan of utter revulsion escaped her. One eel thrashed toward her metal foot. She lifted her leg and smashed it flat, leaving a bloody smear of crushed eel.

Tau started barking again, now with a panicked edge. She glanced at him. One of the pale eels snaked up his leg. He snapped at it, but the eel seemed to anticipate this and writhed into Tau’s mouth.

“Tau! No!” She grabbed at the eel’s tail and missed because Tau was shaking his head, trying to dislodge the foul worm. The eel disappeared completely into his mouth, vanishing like a strand of spaghetti sucked down fast. She dragged Tau away from the other eels slithering toward them. He was making strange coughing, choking noises that ripped the heart out of her, blanked her mind of everything except horror.

“Spit it out!” she pleaded, opening his jaws, but the eel had gone. Oh God, down her dog’s throat.

Tau whined, then sagged back on his haunches before rolling onto his side. He started panting, his sides heaving. She gave a helpless sob, seeing him in pain and she couldn’t do anything to help. The damn eels seemed to zero in on him, gliding faster with snakelike wiggles.

She stooped down and heaved Tau into her arms, all seventy-plus pounds of dog with one clean jerk. Her legs shrieked in agony, her back twinged, and her muscles stood out in hard ropes under her skin. She nearly overbalanced and fell on her ass, but caught her center at the last moment. Another eel made a rippling lunge for her foot. She ground it into the cement with a twist of her Andurgo leg, bearing down with all her weight. The remaining eels relentlessly closed on her, a few slithering over the top of the first eel she’d smashed.

She backed away. She had to get Tau to a doctor—no…a surgeon. First she had to get her hands on something with more deterrent power than a hammer drill. If she didn’t, she had a cold, greasy feeling tumbling around in her stomach that she and Tau wouldn’t be escaping here alive.

Brenna turned and ran for the rear bay doors. Her right leg threatened to give out with every lurching step. That leg had the deepest of her three wounds from the chaur’s claws. The muscles in her arms had already started to burn. Tau’s artificial leg bit into her underarm where she cradled him. He whined. Every time her foot came down it jarred him. She gasped out apologies and soothing, incoherent words until she needed to save her breath just to keep going, fighting off the wave of dizziness that threatened to send both of them crashing to the floor.

She left a trail of bloody smears and prints everywhere she stepped or touched. Her blood, and the chaur’s blood all intermixed. Thank God the chaur’s claw hadn’t hit her artery, or she’d already be dead.

When she finally reached the back of the workshop, she ignored the bay door chains. No chance she could work them while holding Tau. She blindly fumbled with the knob on the access door, her line of sight blocked by the mass of dog in her arms that she struggled to balance. She finally managed enough grip on the knob with her blood-slick hands to turn it, then shouldered the door open. She glanced outside, scanning for any threat—another chaur, whoever was hiding in that creepy van, some other vicious nightmare eager to gnaw off her face.

Nothing out of the ordinary, only the back lot, cracked asphalt decorated with weeds, more parts and equipment she didn’t need but couldn’t ever find the stomach to toss.

Her truck was parked next to the beat-up travel trailer where she lived. The trailer sat on cinderblocks over a strip of weed-choked dirt, flanked by a wooden fence that slowly rotted in the sun. The door to her trailer was still shut, the windows unbroken. She didn’t think anyone had broken in and waited to ambush her…but could she be certain?

No. She’d have to risk it.

“Hold on, boy,” she whispered to Tau. “One more run for all the doggie biscuits.”

She shoved herself all the way out of the door. She wanted to run, but she no longer trusted her upper legs or her ability to carry her dog without dumping them both face first to the asphalt. Her thighs and biceps and shoulders were trembling from strain. Bright agony pulsed from her wounds, and reaction to adrenaline dump left her feeling sick and exhausted. Ironically, her Andurgo legs were solid as an engine stand, even with blood in the servos and ankle joints. Her J-shaped feet left a trail of bloody hash marks behind her.

Almost there. Almost. Her breath gasped in and out of her mouth, her throat burning like a blowtorch. She kept throwing glances over her shoulder, at the driveway and the door. Sweat streamed down her arms, stained her shirt’s armpits. Her mouth tasted as if she’d been flossing with a hacksaw.

Brenna made it to her trailer door without dropping Tau. Somewhere along the way tears began to curve down her cheeks, and anger started to churn deep inside. Her peripheral vision had narrowed and darkened at the edges until she seemed to be staring out a tunnel. She wanted to kill the chaur all over again for hurting her dog, but this time she’d burn the damn thing with fire.

“Hang in there, boy.” She groaned as she set Tau down near the black iron step. She sounded about five hundred years old right now, moaning and gasping, but who could blame her? She stood again, one hand against the sun-warmed side of the trailer to steady herself, then fumbled with her keys and dropped them. She stared at the keys lying in a patch of crabgrass that shoved through a split in the asphalt. Sunlight glinted off the top key’s nickel-plated finish. She wanted to pick it up again, but she only stood there, trembling, sweating, her heart lurching as though she had an unbalanced motor trying to shake its way out of her chest. Nothing felt real. Everything around her felt like a surrealist painting, all softening edges and absurd distortion.

Get a grip. This was shock. She could push through this. Combat stress reaction, nothing more. This happened when people were almost devoured by a nightmare from their childhood and then their dog was…was hurt.

No, she had this. She owned this. She wouldn’t let Tau down.

Brenna stooped and snatched up the keys. She showed the keys to Tau and said, “Opposable thumbs.” Then she laughed like a lunatic.

Maybe she didn’t own this after all. Time was draining away and she was an absolute mess. She had drying blood all the way to her elbows. More blood stained her jeans a dark red. She felt so damn cold she could’ve been a blood popsicle.

The key slid home in the lock on her first try, trembling hands or no. This time she barely managed to lift Tau off the ground, and for a moment she was sure her arms or legs would give out and she’d fall. But somehow she managed to stumble up the metal step and inside the travel trailer with him. Once out of the sunlight and in the enclosed space, she seemed able to focus her thoughts a little better. She kicked away Tau’s collection of chewed tennis balls and set him on his doggie bed. After she locked the door behind her, she hurried to the trunk in her room at the far end of the travel trailer.

The trunk was locked with a heavy, grade six closed shackle padlock, the best she could afford. She searched through her keys until she found the right one while her heart boomed as if her chest were an empty 55 gallon drum. The shackle snapped open, and she let the padlock fall to the floor with a thud. Inside the trunk was a smooth veinwood case, the wood a deep black and threaded with vibrant blue grain that glowed with faint bioluminescence. She touched the wood, which was warm, traced her finger across the ornate silver clasp, then opened the case to reveal the quad.

Her father had been a gunsmith, one of the best in the Cageside Gap. He’d even had customers from some of Entropy’s filthy rich districts, Tchoupau Park, the neighborhoods in Rampart, Vlessa Boulevard, and a few of the big game hunters who scoured the Thread Waste badlands. He’d designed and built this pistol himself, a four barrel break-action, breech-loaded weapon that fired Call flanged cartridges. His rough hands had forged and machined the barrel, every part poured from his molds, carved the stock, assembled and tested it. He’d told her the quad was one of the finest pieces he’d ever produced, but he’d feared the gun too. She’d found that fact disquieting, especially since he’d given it to her when she’d fled Entropy and came to this world.

She lifted the quad free of the case. Though it was shaped like a pistol, the weapon was near seventeen inches in length, too long, heavy and unwieldy for her to hold one handed. She had to use it like a sawed-off shotgun. The stock was also veinwood, that midnight black traced through with the veins of blue bioluminescence. Fifteen shells lay side by side in a lead box, each marked with a rune on the shell casing. She pushed the lever to break the gun open, and it swung smoothly on titanium hinging pins. Next, she loaded each barrel with a Call shell, carefully, because her hands still trembled. Then she flipped the barrel selector lever over to the first of the four barrels shaped in a diamond pattern. The selected barrel rotated above the stock and clicked into place beneath the fixed-frame sight.

Holding the pistol made her feel safer, but also afraid in another, deeper way. There was power here, yes, but some of these shells were exceedingly dangerous, both to the target and the shooter. She didn’t want to use the gun, though she would if forced to protect herself or Tau.

“Almost done, boy,” she called to him. “Hold on for me.”

Tau peered up at her, and his tail thumped the side of his dog bed, once, twice, but without his usual vigor. She felt like crying, but wouldn’t. She glanced out the window, cradling the pistol in both hands. The lot was still empty. The white van sat out of her line of sight. If it came up the drive way she wouldn’t have any choice. Shoot first and worry later.

The next thing she needed was to stop her bleeding. She stepped into her bathroom which was barely bigger than a closet and pulled open her medicine cabinet. She popped four ibuprofen, dry swallowing each, chased it with a couple of tetracycline pills, then shoved an expired bottle of oxycodone into her pocket. Couldn’t risk taking those now because she planned to drive the hell out of here and needed her mind clear. She grabbed a few handtowels and then opened one of the cabinets in the hall, next to the heater, took some yellow polyester rope and a utility knife. She cut the rope into short lengths, folded a towel against each wound and wrapped the rope around her leg before twisting it so tight she had to grit her teeth against a scream of pain as she tied it off.

Her strength had returned a little…and she wasn’t shaking as badly, though she was still breathing hard, and her heart wouldn’t stop thundering away. The pain had fuzzed a little from the ibuprofen, became more of a dull roar in the back of her mind.

Running out of time. She kept throwing glances at the street, expecting that white van. What was it waiting for?

She staggered back into her room, grabbed her cell phone and hesitated. Her first instinct was to call the cops, but they couldn’t help her…and she didn’t want any innocent officer walking into the workshop to be attacked by those damn eels. This had something to do with Entropy. The police would only think her insane if she started explaining about wormhole gates and vast alien metropolises that existed in other dimensions. She had no idea what they’d make of the chaur corpse she’d sawed open, but she wasn’t willing to risk Tau’s life gambling on the chance they’d believe her.

Instead, she speed dialed Annabel. As she impatiently listened to the rings, she pinned the phone between her shoulder and ear and began to stuff her backpack with random clothes and supplies. Her call went to Annabel’s voicemail. Dammit, where the hell was she? The beep to leave a message sounded in her ear.

“There was a fucking chaur in the box, Annabel. What the hell are we involved in? The Emissary called, said he’s on the way to the lab, but he isn’t here yet and I’m not staying. I almost got eaten by a monster, all the way eaten this time, and that abomination son of a bitch put some kind of…some parasite in Tau. I’m getting the hell away from here, not going to say where. Call me. I need to hear from you.”

She disconnected, feeling sick deep down in her stomach. Still, she went to her cupboards and swept canned dogfood and soup into her backpack, then shrugged into her quilted brown jacket and dumped the box of quad shells and her cell phone into her jacket pockets. Tau looked up at her when she hurried over, backpack in one hand, gun in the other. She was prepared to carry him again, but he clambered to his feet with one of his tennis balls in his mouth.

“Can you walk, boy?” she asked, stroking his head. What would that eel do to him? She had to get him to her friend Lavonne. She’d know what to do, who to call to get that damn eel out of her dog. Lavonne was Entropy-born, another immigrant, just like Brenna. Right now, Lavonne was the only hope she had.

Tau’s tail wagged. He seemed stronger than before. Had the eel-thing died inside him? She clung to the hope that he’d stay better and let him trail along beside her. A glance at the clock on the stove told her only fifteen minutes had passed since she’d first staggered in here. Seemed like so much longer. The fight with the chaur held the unreal quality of a fading dream.

She opened the door and stepped out of the trailer. The quiet grated on her nerves, the constant dread of attack filling her with deep, lingering disquiet.

The wind off the Rockies was cool, tickling along her cheeks and neck, pushing her hair back. She called for Tau and they moved to her truck. The door groaned when she opened it, making her wince and glance around. She held the door as her dog scrambled in, then she tossed the backpack on the floor and followed, keeping the quad near a bloody towel cinched around her thigh.

Her Chevy started right up. She dropped it into drive and rolled out. When she cleared the edge of the building’s cinderblock wall, she spotted the white van parked in the same spot as before. The shadow still hunched behind the wheel, and…was its head all misshapen?

“Hold on, Tau,” she said as she strapped him into a doggie harness. “I’m gonna get you some help. We’ll get that thing out of you, I promise.”

She stomped on the accelerator, turned the wheel hard to the left, and roared out of the driveway into the street. The truck’s rear end fishtailed, but she fought it back under control.

Then she really opened the engine up.



* * *Copyright 2013 Keith Melton* * *


Please feel free to leave a comment if you wish! Likes/dislikes, mistakes, etc. No pressure, though. You have my thanks for reading!

Spanner Jack: Chapter One

Creative Commons License
Spanner Jack by Keith Melton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Spanner Jack

by Keith Melton

Dedication

To my best friends, Craig and Ben. Remember the road trip where our car overheated in Death Valley? Or watching from the top of Table Rock as a midnight lightning storm charged across the horizon?

I miss you guys. All the best to you and your families forever.

Chapter One

The Box

Everything went to hell after she lost her wrench.

Of course, the wrench was Brenna’s favorite, a ten-inch locking adjustable. She’d left it somewhere in the workshop. With all the tools, spare parts, half finished rebuilds, and special projects strewn everywhere like wreckage from a bomb, it might take halfway to forever to find it. She had a vague memory of holding it as she’d wandered to the mini-fridge, while her thoughts churned over possible reasons a second recirculating chiller had crapped out this week. Bad compressor and solenoid valve on the first one. On the second, she had the pump motor disemboweled and spread out like mechanical entrails for some gear-god prophecy. She’d been elbow-deep in the guts of the thing when Tau had distracted her, begging for a treat and trading attention for dog breath-flavored face licking. Brenna had been holding the wrench…

…and then it had vanished. Stolen by ninja gremlins right out of her fingers. Or aliens fascinated with primitive spanners. Though her personal favorite possibility was a kleptomaniac ghost. She’d always wanted to live somewhere haunted.

Brenna grinned and blew dangling hair out of her face, for the first time aware that her lower back ached as though someone had smacked a steel chain against her spine. She groaned when she stretched. Too much time spent crouched on the floor beside that damn chiller. Killed her knees too. Long past time for a break.

She wiped her grimy hands on a rag, carefully stepped on the pedal to raise the lid to oily waste trash can, and tossed the rag inside. Her J-shaped Andurgo prosthetic legs made echoey thuds on the concrete, the servos whispering, sending feedback through fiberoptic cables and nanofibers to her nerves, allowing her to feel the ground as she walked to the sink. Her legs might be missing below the knee, but the advanced design gave her full freedom of movement, even if she wouldn’t be modeling pantyhose anytime soon. She smirked and scrubbed her hands with Lava soap to clean off the gunk from the motor. Not her favorite soap scent at all, but Claus Porto liquid lavender really failed to cut through the grease.

Tau scrambled out of his dog bed and hurried over to her with his favorite tennis ball in his mouth, whipping his tail back and forth, looking hopeful. Every other step, one of his legs gave a soft clang, similar to hers but quieter. He was a yellow Labrador retriever and was missing his right rear leg.

She’d adopted Tau after finding him listed online at a shelter in Atlanta, victim of a car hit-and-run, and she’d driven him back to Denver. After consulting with a vet and a biologist at the University of Colorado Denver, she’d fitted him with a harness and prototype rear leg she’d designed with AutoCAD and had built, based off current carbon-fiber prosthetic legs that would allow him to run. Tau’s leg was nowhere near as advanced as hers, but it held its own with current Earth tech. Quite a pair they made together. When she took him with her on her morning run they always turned heads. She’d long since gotten over her irritation at all the “bionic woman” and “bionic dog” comments. People were people. She wouldn’t go through life pissed off because they failed to come up with fresh and amusing material.

She scratched between Tau’s ears. “No time for fetch yet.” He dropped the tennis ball at her feet and it bounced away with little wet splats on the concrete. “Ugh, did you marinate that in drool? You’re out of luck, boy. I just washed these hands.”

She retraced her steps to the fridge, searching for the missing wrench in all the places she might’ve left it. Almost every flat surface was covered with tools and parts and the disassembled internals of something she’d been working on or designing at some point. She’d have to tell Annabel about how the second chiller had gone belly up and—depending on the availability of replacement parts—wouldn’t be fixed for a few days, if that. As always, Annabel would have a highly intelligent mental breakdown over the delay. Because an “Einstein-Rosen Bridge didn’t build itself” and “Space-time waited for no woman” and “Negative energy needed positive attitude.”

Or she’d say something like that anyway. Strange platitudes aside, space-time would have to wait at least forty-eight hours.

The doorbell rang—well, rang was the wrong word, since she’d rigged it through the workshop speakers mounted along the walls to play the sound of an air raid siren. It always startled door-to-door salespeople and proselytizers and generated noise complaints. And it annoyed Annabel. Completely worth it, for the coolness factor alone. The world needed more wacky.

She whistled for Tau and headed for the steel front door. She swung aside the cover on the peephole and peered out. A man stood there wearing gray coveralls and a cap, holding a clipboard and bouncing on his heels as if he needed a trip to the restroom. He was maybe twenty or so, scruffy, his coveralls wrinkled and striped with dust.

She pushed the intercom button. “Yes?”

“I have a really large package delivery.” He laughed and glanced at the clipboard. “For Chell Laboratories.”

She slid back the steel bar, flipped both deadbolts, and pulled the door open. Tau stood by her side, wagging his tail in his best impression of a menacing guard dog.

The delivery guy started to hand her a clipboard, then stopped cold. “Shit, what happened to your legs?”

“Eaten by a shark.” The lies were easy. Sometimes she changed shark to giant squid or piranhas. Sometimes she lost her legs below the knee in a tragic roller coaster accident. Sometimes in an explosion at a moonshine still or while juggling chainsaws. Her answer depended on her mood. Strangers rude enough to ask didn’t deserve the truth.

“Shark? No fucking way,” the delivery guy said. “Were you a surfer?”

“On a cruise ship that sank. I never got my money back, either. They said pirate raids weren’t included in the insurance policy. Who knew?”

“Now you’re all robot-woman and shit. My girlfriend’s not even gonna believe this.” He eyed her black Andurgo legs. “How come you don’t do the plastic fake-leg thing? You like the attention?”

“Because when I kick someone in the balls with these, it hurts more.” She smiled as sweetly as she could manage. “What delivery company are you with again?” She looked at the truck. Standard commercial delivery truck. No name on the side, but there was something written on the door panel that she couldn’t read from this angle.

“UDS. Uppendown Delivery Service. Yeah, I know. The owner’s last name is Uppendown and he’s a real funny guy.” He glanced at the clipboard again, then thrust it at her. “I already X’ed all the places to sign. Scribble something and we’re good to go. Hope you have a man around to move it for you once I unload. This bitch weighs a ton.”

“I’m sure I’ll manage through the miracle of modern technology. We’ve got bay doors in back. Just pull the truck around.”

She took the clipboard and scanned the bill of lading for what was in the box. There were only strange codes and truncated words that could’ve referred to anything. She found the lines X-marked for her signature and scribbled. As she signed, the delivery guy glanced at Tau, who apparently rated lower than her legs for pure wow factor.

“Hey there, boy,” he said. “You a good dog?”

Tau’s tail began to thump against the floor. He dropped the tennis ball and it bounced along the ground. For Tau, the hope of fetch sprang eternal. He also had terrible taste in people—herself, of course, excluded.

“Holy fucking shit, that dog has the same fucking robo leg.”

“I know. The craziness continues unabated.” She handed back the clipboard, ready to have this idiot gone so she could get back to working on the motor. A nice, simple, inoffensive pump motor that could keep its mouth shut. Right now that sounded like heaven.

“How’d he lose it?”

“Fighting cougars. I’ll go open the back.” She shut the door on him and threw the bolts and bar, then threaded her way through the workshop to the rear bay doors where they took large equipment deliveries. She squared her shoulders, chin up, moved with purpose. She hadn’t let the broken pump or the leaking compressor ruin her day. She wasn’t going to let an obnoxious delivery guy ruin it either.

She hand-over-hand pulled the chain that opened the first bay door. The delivery truck beeped as it backed up the wide drive into the lot behind the shop. The delivery guy lined the truck up with the door, opened the back, then struggled with a pallet jack to move a box as big as a range stove to the truck’s hydraulic lift. The lift whined as it lowered. Tau barked at the sound, and Brenna hushed him absently. She didn’t remember Annabel mentioning more incoming equipment. Then again, Annabel lived inside her mind much of the time, wrapped up in hypothesis and experimental theory. Wouldn’t be the first time stuff had turned up unexpectedly.

The delivery guy hauled the pallet jack and box into the shop. She could tell from how he struggled to get the pallet jack rolling that he wasn’t exaggerating about the weight. She had him park the pallet holding the mystery box off to the side, near the double fire doors that led from the workshop to the interior lab. A strange scent of something that stank like vinegar reached her nose. She didn’t mention it in case the smell came from the man—she’d never intentionally embarrass another person, not even a jerk—but she started to sweat and her heart rate sped up for no reason she understood.

“Load’s uneven,” the delivery guy warned. “Wants to shift around on you. You got a forklift?”

“Small walk-behind.”

He nodded. “Good. I’m sure those robo-feet don’t give you much traction.”

Her Andurgo legs had pads on the bottom which gave her roughly the same traction as a good running shoe, though with less surface area. She bit her tongue, hoping icy silence would drive him out the door before his brain caught frostbite and destroyed his last actively firing neuron. It worked, because he laughed awkwardly, patted Tau, and slouched off to the truck. She leaned against the cinderblock wall and watched as he backed out. He threw her a jaunty salute and drove off.

She was about to head inside when she noticed the cargo van. White, with tinted windows, it was parked in front of the abandoned building across the street. The van had RepairPro Fire/Water/Mold Restoration written in sun-cracked lettering across the side. The building where it was parked had been empty, with a mournful For Lease sign dangling in one of the barred windows, for the three years she and Annabel had been here. She’d never noticed anyone parked there before.

Brenna hesitated, because she felt watched. The hair on the back of her arms and neck lifted, and goose bumps prickled her skin. The feeling was too strong to ignore. Someone, maybe several someones, watched her. Tau stood very still beside her, on alert, his tennis ball abandoned.

She turned and retreated to the bay door, uneasy, grateful for Tau at her side. Quickly, she worked the chain, shutting the door and going the extra step of padlocking the slide latch. She was on her way to the front of the workshop to steal another look at the van when the lab phone rang. She’d also rigged the phone to ring through the workshop speakers, this time to play “Weird Science.” Annabel had asked her to change it to classical music, suggesting Holst’s The Planets or anything by Mozart, but Brenna always put it off. The world might need more wacky, but classical music didn’t fit the bill.

She pushed past polypropylene dust barriers and through the fire doors into the lab, certain she wouldn’t get to the phone in time to answer. This wasn’t a bio lab but a physics lab, so the barriers were only to reduce the dirt and noise from the workshop. Tau padded-clanked along with her. She hurried past the helium neon laser and ceramic capacitors, careful not to knock over the CCD camera mounted on a tripod.

She grabbed the phone on the final ring before it went to voice mail. “Chell labs. Brenna.”

“I’m running late.” Annabel’s voice was faint over the connection, but she sounded distracted, harried. “I’m expecting a package delivery today. Has a courier arrived?”

“Just arrived. A massive-huge box. Some delivery company I’ve never heard of with a cheesy name. Can’t we just use UPS next time?”

“What are the dimensions of the box?”

“About the size of a large kitchen range.”

“No, that’s not right. Does the paperwork say Diamont Technology?”

Brenna wandered back into the workshop with the cordless phone and tore the bill of lading off the box. The vinegar reek definitely came from the box and made her stomach feel queasy. She tried to ignore both her nausea and growing unease as she scanned the paperwork.

“No, it says Anahit Industries.” She rested her hand on the box…and something inside thumped against the side hard enough to startle her. Her heart started hammering. She glanced at Tau, thinking he might’ve whacked it with his wagging tail, but Tau stood over by the door. Watching the box. Very intent. His tail definitely not wagging.

“That’s not the box,” Annabel said. “I don’t even remember ordering anything that big.”

“You don’t think…there’s something alive inside it, do you?” She laughed to show how stupid she found this possibility. Stupid or not, her heart still slammed away hard and fast.

“Don’t be ridiculous. We’re not even close to the testing phase yet. For now, Tau is more than enough mascot for the lab.”

“Right. And we agreed, no lab rats. We’re testing on politicians instead—”

Something thumped again, but softly. Tau growled low in his throat. Brenna edged away from the box, eyeing it, her grip tightening on the cordless phone. There couldn’t be anything alive inside. There weren’t even any air holes.

But what the hell was making those noises?

Annabelle had said something and she’d missed it. “Sorry?”

“I said, if you’re finished making jokes, then perhaps you could check out front. Of course, if they left this package out front, we’re all screwed. This is irreplaceable equipment.”

“What—”

“No details over the phone.” Annabel’s voice held a rare edge. “Go check for me, would you?”

“Sure thing.” A long time ago she’d stopped being annoyed at Annabel’s random interruptions and cryptic requests. The strangest had been the time Annabel had roused her at one o’clock in the morning from the trailer she lived in behind the workshop and dispatched her to the nearest gas station minimart. At her request, Brenna had purchased four containers of antifreeze for the ethylene glycol, a Three Musketeers candy bar, five large bags of ice, all the sodium chloride in the building, and a bowl of nachos saturated with plastic yellow cheese.

She whistled to Tau and walked to one of the windows reinforced with iron mesh that looked out on the street. The window was filthy, spider webs in the corners, dead bugs on the sills, but she could see the van through the bleary glass.

“What’s taking so long, Bren?”

“There’s a van—”

“A delivery van?”

“No, industrial cleaning and damage repair—”

“I really need you to check on this package. Three years of research might reach its nexus with a single delivery. You’ll excuse me if I don’t give a frigging frack about a cleaning van.”

“Is this the point in our work relationship where I inform you that Dr. Frankenstein is a slave-driver and Igor is quitting? Or hold on, here’s another one you might appreciate. You can take this job and shove it up your wormhole.”

“Bren…please.”

“All right, all right.” She grabbed a large pipe wrench off the tool bench, because it made her feel better to hold something heavy—not much, but a little—and she went through the routine of unlocking the door and pushing it open again. The van’s tinted windows made it difficult to see inside, but she was almost certain a big shape loomed behind the wheel. She felt the eyes on her again. The same being watched sensation.

She idly swung the pipe wrench in her hand as she glanced around, and then locked her gaze back on the van. “No box,” she said into the phone.

“Damn. Can you check out back?”

“I was just out there—”

“Please, Bren. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think it important. Check again, for me?”

Brenna sighed and slipped back inside, then locked the door. As soon as she had good steel between her and that van she felt better. Tau stared at her as if expecting her to do something. No tail wagging. No happy doggy grin. Only watching her.

She whistled for him…and something else whistled, mocking her with an eerie higher-pitched, screeching sound. Tau stared at the box and whined. The hairs on the back of her neck started to rise, and a chill wracked its way down her spine, the old mallet-across-the-xylophone gag. That had sounded like… No, impossible, couldn’t be. Still, she didn’t want to open that box. She wished she’d told that delivery driver to take the box and shove it up his wormhole.

“Are you there?” Annabel asked. “Did my call drop?”

“I’m here.” Her voice sounded remarkably calm to her own ears. “Something in the box just whistled.”

“For the last time, we don’t have anything alive shipping to the lab. You heard something else. Equipment. A sound outside. An echo. Now, out back? My important box?”

Nuts. Brenna started across the workshop. She’d been ping-ponging back and forth between the front and the back all afternoon, and she still had a chiller to rebuild and a disturbing mystery box to forever avoid opening. Tau trailed along behind her. This time she used the access door instead of the bay door, cracked it open an inch, checking, then shoved it wide with the wrench ready in her hand. No one was back here. No package either. She told Annabel as much without even sounding smug.

Well, not too smug anyway.

Her friend sighed. “I was certain it would arrive today. Maybe I mixed up the dates. Thanks for checking for me, Bren. When I get back I’m going to run a hypersurface stability test, so if you could set the equipment up, I’d appreciate it. I also need CAD drawings on that mounting framework for the beamsplitter before Friday. Oh, and open that big box and inventory what’s inside. Now I really have to go.”

“But the chiller—”

Dead air. Annabel had disconnected.

Brenna called her back, but went straight to voice mail. She left a short message about the chiller rebuild, then carried the pipe wrench with her back into the lab to return the cordless phone to the base. The pipe wrench had some weight at least, but if she really wanted a weapon, she should open the trunk in her trailer. She’d feel like a fool if she brought out her father’s quad for no reason, but she’d feel like a safer fool. He’d warned her about using the weapon, right before he’d given it to her and had sent her away forever. That van, though…there was something creepy about that van.

And that damn box held something alive.

She was about to mate cordless with recharger on the desk when the phone rang in her hand. She yelped and dropped it. It bounced off the keyboard and lay against the computer mouse. The illuminated screen displayed the words UNKNOWN CALLER.

When she tried to laugh at her skittishness it sounded hollow, forced. Probably Annabel again, calling back with more instructions since the chiller was kaput. Either that, or wanting her to drop everything and weld a new steel frame to support the cyclotron modifications. She grabbed the handset. “Chell Labs. Still Brenna.”

“Good to know you remain Brenna and not some other creature,” a male voice said over the line. She recognized the voice straight away, though she hadn’t heard it often, and had only met him in person once. The Emissary. That was it. No first or last name. Only that strange, pompous-sounding title passing as a moniker.

Damn, this she really didn’t need. What the hell else could go wrong today?

“Sorry. Thought you were someone else.” She cleared her throat. “What can I do for you, Mr. Emissary?”

“I left a message on Dr. Price’s voicemail, however, I believe in redundancy. Did a package arrive at your lab today?”

“I think maybe you should talk to Annabel about that. I don’t want to overstep.”

“I’m certain you’ve been made aware that I own every piece of equipment inside that building. Dr. Price works for me, and, by extension, a spanner jack such as yourself also works for me.” He uttered a depreciating chuckle. “I dislike being so forward, almost gauche, in declaring my rights. I find it demeaning for everyone involved. Yet, in this case I’m making an exception because this is important.”

Spanner jack. A rough translation of a northside Entropy term. A jack-of-all-trades. A wrench for hire. She knew he meant it as derisive, putting her in her place. She felt her cheeks and forehead burn, and was furious at herself for feeling even a smidgen of shame. This from a guy who called himself Emissary. What a jerk.

“A large box was just delivered,” she said, her voice cold. “Annabel—Dr. Price—called a few minutes ago looking for another package she’s expecting. It’s not here yet.”

“My jet is on the runway at Denver International. I have a car waiting and expect to arrive at your lab in less than an hour. Don’t open the box. If the other should arrive, don’t open that box either.”

“You’re coming here?” The thought made her guts clench. The workshop was a mess, as always, but even the lab looked more disordered than usual due to their heavy experiment schedule. Not how one wanted the financial backer to see the state of his investment. “Coming here today?”

“Very shortly. Please watch for the second delivery and secure it. We’ll speak more after I arrive.” He disconnected.

She set the phone on the charger with a shaking hand, the other still clutching the pipe wrench. The Emissary had always unnerved her. That creepy-scary, uber-urbane vibe. There’d been nothing overt. Not to her, not directly, but Annabel was afraid of him. He hadn’t exaggerated when he’d said he owned their lab. His funds had purchased most of the tools in the workshop as well. The drill press, acetylene torch, all the welding gear, the bending brake, and so on, aside from the scattering of hand tools she owned. He might even own a piece of Annabel in some way—rating as something far more influential than merely an employer or source of capital. The possibility unsettled Brenna enough that she’d never found the right way to ask for the truth.
She wandered from the lab in a daze. The unending roulette spin of her mind wouldn’t let any thought fall into a coherent pocket. The first and only time she’d met the Emissary in person, he’d looked her over, his dark gaze dropping to her mechanical legs, and he’d said, “Chaur.”

That word had sent ice chips rushing through her veins. A chaur had eaten both of her legs. Ten years ago, when she was fifteen. She’d been mauled along Glasstree Avenue, where the canals met, as she’d walked in the shade of one of the city’s listening towers. Long time ago, but she had the memories, the scars, and the missing parts to remind her. Most days—weeks even—she didn’t think about it. But when the Emissary had said that word, it had brought back all the paralyzing fear that had shadowed her for a long time after the attack.

Tau whined and licked her hand, as if he could read her darkening mood. She grinned and leaned down to hug him. He struggled to lick her face, and she laughed. She meant to go back to the workbench where she had the pump motor pulled apart, even took a couple of steps in that direction. Then something boomed against the box loud enough to make her flinch and shriek. She followed the shriek with a curse, lifting the wrench. Tau scrambled between her and the box, then stood still, staring at it and making no sound.
Something was definitely alive inside the box…and it sounded as if it wanted out. Only an idiot would tear back those flaps and check, even if the Emissary hadn’t told her not to open it. Had he known something was alive in there? And that smell…she recognized it—

The box began to shake and shudder against the two metal bands securing it to the pallet, loud thumps and booms filled the air. She took a step backward. Another sound came through the heavy cardboard sides. That sound…that horrible high-pitched sound that she remembered. Keeeee-kee-kee. The hunting call of a chaur.

Impossible. Insanity. There were no chaur on this side of the brane. They weren’t even native to the city of Entropy. They were from further dimensions, infesting other worlds. The one that had mauled her had broken free from the personal menagerie of a Sidhe noble. Her damn cursed luck—

“Keeeeeee-kee-kee!” came the high shriek from the box, followed by a piercing whistle. Then the box and pallet began to slide across the floor in jerks as the thing inside rammed the walls, which started to buckle under the assault.

She stumbled backward until she bumped against a workbench. Her heart pounded, a hollow boom, boom, in rapid counterpoint to the thumps from the box. The air was full of the smell of grease and metal, of iron-fillings and ozone…and, more faintly, vinegar. The reek from the slime on its body. Tau whined and retreated a little before facing the box again.

Run.

She couldn’t get her legs to obey. They were dead. Lifeless metal, worthless mockeries. Run? How could she run? The monster had eaten her legs.

Tau growled. A “Keeeee-kee-kee-kee” shriek answered, then came a huge echoing boom. Cardboard began to tear and shred, eaten away from inside. Chunks of brown cardboard flew through the air and bounced along the cement floor. Tau began to bark.

This couldn’t be happening. A sick nightmare—

The chaur shoved through the side of the box in an explosion of shredded cardboard. Its muscular back legs scrambled for purchase on the concrete, two thick white claws veined with red screeched across the floor. It had moved too fast and smashed into one of her big rolling toolboxes, denting the side and knocking the whole thing over with a resounding crash.

The world went strange—sounds faint, distant, full of echoes, the overhead track lighting showed halos. Her mouth dry, her heart hitting so hard her fingertips trembled. That stink like vinegar…she should’ve recognized that smell right away.

The chaur staggered upright, snorting and whistling, the size of a large dog. Two powerful digitigrade legs propelled it forward, its body low to the ground, its long, thick tail held straight out for balance. Its head was a bright cerulean blue, an ice-white body covered with a sheen of gelatinous milky slime. One large muddy eye protruded from each side of its head like a frog’s eye. Neck as big around as the mouth of a 5-gallon pail, massive jaws with rows of serrated teeth. Two small forelimbs sprouted from its body just below the neck, whip-like, hooked on the end with a single curving talon, each about a foot and a half long. The chaur would snag them in prey to hold it still while biting—she had the scars on her upper thighs to prove it. It radiated warmth like a furnace, waves of heat washing against her skin, making her want to shiver. And the stink like vinegar, but sharper, almost…burned.

It thundered forward, rushed toward Tau, legs pounding the floor.

“No!” She lunged forward, dove, and yanked her dog away from the charging monster. She sacrificed her grip on the pipe wrench to grab and haul Tau, and the wrench bounced away with a loud metallic clatter.

The creature slashed at her with one of its hooked limbs as it passed. The hook-claw ripped through her jeans and scored along her thigh. She smelled blood. A instant later pain flared in her leg as if she’d burned a line into her skin with the blowtorch. She gritted her teeth to keep from screaming.

The chaur rejoiced with a “Keee-kee—” then skidded into a 55-gallon drum of old fluorescent lighting tubes she kept meaning to recycle. The chaur crashed into the drum and shattered all the bulbs, flailed around in the broken glass and drove shards into its slimy hide.

Brenna rolled to her feet, hauling Tau behind her. One of her prosthetic legs hit the concrete at an awkward angle, missing the pad on the bottom, the ankle-joint groaned and the metal squealed against the ground. Everything seemed to stand out in bright, precise detail. The dazed horror and surprise had loosened its grip, or the terror had grown so great she’d shoved right through the paralyzing wall again.

She shifted, turning her knee, and pushed herself into a run. Her legs clanged as she sprinted toward the rear door. The longer she ran, the quicker she went and the easier the movement became, as if her legs wanted to go faster, ever faster. Tau ran alongside her in his lurching gait, toenails clicking on the concrete, his prosthetic leg banging.

She had to get the hell out of here, get to her quad. To the big four-barrelled gun her father had built. Real or nightmare, that pistol would settle things.

The chaur loosed a shrill whistle that spiked through her ears and drilled into her brain. It launched itself into another thundering charge. It was faster than her, had a better angle to the door, and it was going to cut them off.

She slid to a stop before the monster intercepted her, changed direction, and cut for the front door. The chaur was on her, she heard the rapid, heavy thud of its legs, the hard click-scrape of its talons right behind her. She threw a look behind her. The chaur’s blue head was thrown back, jaws yawning wide, alien eyes watching her. Crazy, but she thought she could see her own reflection in those hideous eyes—

It lunged and bit. She juked, crying out, hit her hip on a center workbench and rolled herself onto it to escape. The chaur’s jaws closed on empty air, but it jumped onto the workbench after her. She shoved herself backward, sliding across the bench, knocking off parts and tools to clatter and clang to the floor. The chaur pursued her. Tau, barking furiously, scrambled up onto the workbench behind the monster.

The chaur shrieked “Keeeeeee!” and blew its fetid breath into her face, choking her. Its two hooked limbs whipped out and snared themselves in her flesh, in her thigh and hip. She screamed in agony. It hauled her closer to its huge jaws, opening them wide, showing her the wicked rows of jagged teeth, the black flesh lining the roof of its mouth, the ropes of glistening saliva. Tau was tearing at its tail, biting and snarling, but the chaur sent her dog flying with one contemptuous thrash of the heavy limb. Now Brenna’s scream was one of rage. Her hand flailed for something, anything, to use as a weapon.

Her fingers curled around her favorite adjustable wrench.

She swung it with all her strength and smashed the chaur’s eye. The eye burst in a spray of reddish-brown fluid. The chaur whistle-shrieked and lurched to the side. The big talon on its rear leg barely missed slicing open her inner thigh. She swung the wrench again, breaking teeth this time. They snapped like a candy cane, sent white shards ticking along the scarred workbench.

She hauled herself away, got a leg under her, and kicked the monster in the bottom of the neck with her metal foot. The chaur made a gurgling sound and saliva pattered across her cheek, but one of its hook-limbs had torn free of her flesh. She screamed in anger and pain as she shoved herself backward again, ripping the other out of her muscle. Her blood stained the workbench, mixed with the chaur’s blood.

She almost got away. She rolled off the bench, missed her footing, hit her hip hard on the ground and the world grayed out for a second in a filmy washwater haze of pure agony. She battled through the haze. If she lost it now, that thing would eat her. The thought sent so much horror and revulsion shivering through her that she gave a helpless groan.

The chaur wheeled on her, its sides heaving, thrashing its hooks around, snapping its heavy jaws like a crocodile. It leapt off the workbench at her. She scrambled clear just in time. She still held her wrench, but she couldn’t kill this bastard with a wrench.

Her cordless DeWALT hammer drill lay on a metal bench near her vise. She snatched it up in her left hand, just as the chaur lunged at her, mouth gaping. She kicked it in the side of the head with her foot—no thought, moving in purest reaction—and the metal thudded against its skull. The chaur’s jaws snapped closed and its teeth scraped along the metal, leaving marks. She jerked her leg back before it could clamp down with all its bite pressure.

The chaur stumbled off balance, thrashed its tail and sent tools and parts and boxes of washers flying. She thrust with the hammer drill, pressing the trigger. The motor whined as the half-inch drill bit twisted into its neck. Red-brown blood sprayed out. The chaur wailed like a steam whistle and wrenched away from her, yanking the hammer drill out of her grip as the monster retreated, bleeding.

Her mouth was set in a hateful smile, her teeth grinding along each other, her heart thundering, every bit of her alive with electric rage as she shook with horror and hate. Tau was barking, barking, a hammering-sharp sound that echoed in the workshop as rapid as machinegun fire. The chaur rounded on him, lowering its body as it stalked forward. Blood pulsed from the wounds she’d inflicted. Its head cocked to the side to watch her dog with its remaining good eye. Tau backed away, barking.

Brenna vaulted herself onto the workbench still slick with her blood. The pain flared into bright agony every time she moved. She had no choice but to cut the pain loose, disregard it. She took two running steps, one of them sliding dangerously as the pad on her prosthetic leg lost grip for a second before catching again, and she jumped off the bench. She came down between the chaur and Tau, shock dampers in her feet eating the impact so she felt no jolt, the fiber optics canceling out the sensation of pain before it transferred to her nerves.

The chaur circled around, making the strange “Keeeeeee-kee-kee-kee” sound as though it laughed at her.

“Stay close to me, boy,” she whispered to Tau.

He stopped barking and whined. His warm tongue licked across her empty left hand. All she had for a weapon was her number one wrench because she’d lost the hammer drill. She glanced at the tools around her, keeping the chaur in her peripheral vision at all times. A reciprocating saw lay on a wooden worktable nearby. Thank God for messes and how she never put her tools away.

She dropped the wrench and grabbed the reciprocating saw in her left hand, the plug in her right. The chaur whistled as she moved, and she might’ve laughed if she hadn’t felt like simultaneously crying and screaming. She shoved the plug at one of the drop-down outlets located throughout the workshop. She missed, the prongs skated free of their holes, and she cursed.

The chaur slowly stalked toward them, swaying with predator menace. No more charging, but she knew it came to finish them. She glanced back at the plug. Shoved again with a shaking hand. Missed. Made a helpless sound of frustration and panic. The chaur drew close. She could smell the vinegar stink flooding her nostrils, and she thought she might be sick. Her legs trembled, her hands shook, and no wonder she couldn’t get the damn plug in with her hands shaking and covered with blood and a monster going to eat her—

The plug slipped into the socket. She yelled in triumph and whirled to face the chaur, raising the saw and pressing the trigger. The saw shuddered in her hand, making a hungry rattle, the blade blurring back and forth.

“Come on, fucker!” she screamed. “Nobody messes with my dog! Come on!”

The chaur reared on its back legs, screeched its “Keeeeee-kee-keeeeee-kee!” and came for her.

* * *Copyright 2013 Keith Melton* * *

Please feel free to leave a comment if you wish! Likes/dislikes, mistakes, etc. No pressure, though. You have my thanks for reading!

Spanner Jack by Keith Melton (a free serialized online novel)


Spanner Jack

How can you heal, when the monsters won’t leave you alone?

Brenna McClain, an unlicensed engineer and Jack-of-all-trades, has carved out a place for herself working with Dr. Annabel Price on a highly unorthodox, highly dangerous project. The job keeps her wrench busy, and food in her dog Tau’s dish. She doesn’t think they have much of a chance to open a wormhole to the nexus city of Entropy from Earth, even under the guidance of a shadowy benefactor referred to only as the Emissary. Then the box arrives, hiding a horror inside that she’d gate-jumped across dimensions to escape. Something that had stolen her legs from her when she’d been a girl…

She soon finds herself targeted by a relentless hunter who “births” his own monsters to track her. Mounting evidence and the mayhem can only mean that someone close to the project is a traitor who will shed any amount of blood to make certain the interdimensional gates remain closed forever…

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three


NEW

Chapter Four


UPDATE 7/2/2013

Chapter Four is live. I apologize. I meant to have this out in June, but ye olde Evil Day Job had other ideas. This is a Brenna and Tau chapter. I’m a little worried that the made up terms/creatures/places and strange names are making this story hard to follow. I’m trying to draw out the mystery and questions without losing people…

UPDATE 5/10/2013

Chapter Three is live, and here’s the villian. Brenna better run fast.
Chapter Four will go live in June.

UPDATE 5/4/2013

Next chapter is live. This one is a little shorter than the first. Initially, chapter two contained the introduction to the bad guy in the latter half, but it ended up a bit too long. Chapter 3 will contain the bad guy scene (the creepy thing lurking inside the van…duhn duhn DUHN!) Since Chapter 3 is 95% complete, I’ll be posting it next Friday, 5/10/2013.




General info:


Now for something completely different.

It has been a long time since I’ve published any of my writing. True, I have several novel projects in various stages (two of them finished, awaiting editing, and one being rewritten), but no new book in stores to point at and say: “I just wrote that!” In recent months, this unfortunate fact has led to me feeling more and more like a ghost. A digital ghost, haunting some forgotten corner of the Internet.

And that’s sad.

So anyway, I decided to try an experiment, because what the hell, ghosts should be able to do what they want. I’m going to write a novel called Spanner Jack, chapter by chapter, and post it on this website/blog-type-thing. It will be available under a Creative Commons license (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License to be exact). When it is complete, I’ll have it professionally edited, a professional cover created using awkward, plastic CGI people—ha, I kid—then have it formatted into an ebook and send it off into the electronic book wilderness while singing “Born Free.”

Also, I feel like giving back to my massive fan base of three, possibly four people completely unrelated to me. One of those people asked when I’d have new stuff. I was so flattered and simultaneously crushed by guilt that here I am, posting new stuff. For those who might contend that writing should never be given away for free, never never, I reply that this is also practice for me as a writer. I’m allowing others to watch as I create this book, trying to hone my writing skills, attempting to fine-tune the pacing of a speculative fiction thriller to make it both exciting and enjoyable. I rather think of this endeavor as ice sculpting in the park. With chainsaws.

Fair warning

This is a work in progress. This novel is being written chapter by chapter, so early events may face some version of retconning. It will also be edited/changed on the fly. I’ve done my best to present relatively clean prose, but a professional editor has not yet worked magic upon it, and thus the chapters may contain the occasional stumble or outright failure. I hope to publish a chapter per month, but due to other writing deadlines, cannot say exactly where in the month the birth of a new chapter will fall.

Feel free to leave comments after the chapter if you’d like. Also feel free to point out errors. Any commenter who points out a legitimate error/etc will, if she/he so desires, be mentioned in the book’s acknowledgements as thanks for the help (you’ll need to include at least a valid email to contact you–I won’t sell these or spam you or any shady shenanigans like that, or you can remain anon if you so desire). Likewise feel free to comment on things you liked/disliked. Don’t feel pressured to say positive things. I’m checking the fabled author ego at the door so readers will feel free to be frank and honest.

Warning: Spanner Jack contains profanity and action/violence. It’s safe to say it rolls along in the R-rated category, likely a “soft” R-rating. The book is licensed under the Creative Commons, but cannot be resold by anyone other than the copyright holder, also known as…(fanfare)…Keith Melton!

Spanner Jack

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four Coming in June!

Creative Commons License
Spanner Jack by Keith Melton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Dark Ride Dogs finished…and a Good Review for Ghost Soldiers!

Writing update:

I finished a 2nd draft of a Zero Dog novel. It’s called Dark Ride Dogs. Hopefully it will release in late 2012.

Dark Ride Dogs pits those crazy Zero Dog mercenaries against homicidal redcaps and murderous ghost clowns, all with a creepy carnival flavor and tons of wild humor. It’s currently off with a few beta readers who were kind enough to agree to read it. I’ve never used beta readers before, but I want this book to be good–no, really good–so I’m pulling out all the stops. I toned some stuff down (the military hardware name-dropping for example) and tried to add a little more heart to the book (along with all the fighting and explosions and fire and werewolf shenanigans). We’ll see.

And…a great review for Ghost Soldiers:

“Keith Melton has written a masterful book (and series) that shatters all the stereotypes of good and evil, right and wrong. All of the characters are complex and intricately-drawn, and the reader is sucked into all the shades of black and gray that envelops their lives. Mr. Melton is a storyteller of the highest order and his writing is sharp, vivid and engrossing. The “warning” of the book reads: “Explicit language and intense, violent content. Assassinations, betrayals, paranormal warfare, explosions, gangland slayings, chaos, calamity, rampant pandemonium and an occasional fiery explosion.” I would humbly add to that – sucks you in and will not let go. This book is a must-read!”– Bitten By Books

Bitten By Books Review of Ghost Soldiers

 

There aren’t any flying robot monkey sharks in Dark Ride Dogs… and that’s a damn shame.