To celebrate the imminent release of Dead Streets, the second book featuring Matt Ritcher Zombie Private Eye, Angry Robot Books has released a short story set in the same universe, The Midnight Watch.
And here it is…
The Midnight Watch
“You’re really thinking about doing this, aren’t you?”
Devona didn’t answer me right away, and I took that as a bad sign. I knew she heard me. We’d only been together a couple of months, but in that time I’d learned that not only was her half-vampire hearing sharp as hell, she rarely missed anything that went on around her. So if she wasn’t answering me, it could only mean one of two things: I’d asked the wrong question or she was afraid I wasn’t going to like her answer. This time, it turned out to be both.
We were standing on the sidewalk in front of a squat stone building that put me in mind of a giant toad that had looked a gorgon straight in the eye. Thick tendrils of leech vine covered most of the surface, and the stone that we could see was pitted and cracked. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the damned vine was the only thing holding the ancient structure together. The building was located in the Sprawl, not all that far from my apartment… make that our apartment. Devona had moved in not long after we met, but I still sometimes had trouble wrapping my undead brain around the concept that I was part of a couple again. I’d been married back on Earth, but that was a while ago. I’d long since divorced and traveled to the other-dimensional city of Nekropolis where I’d died and been resurrected as a self-willed zombie. After that, I figured my dating days were over. I mean, really, would you want to go out with someone who’s perpetually decaying? But Devona was a broad-minded woman, even for Nekropolis, and I regularly visited my houngan for periodic applications of the preservative spells that prevented me from completely rotting away to dust.
I was fairly fresh that day, with only a slight grayish-green tinge to my flesh. I wore my usual gray suit and my tie displayed images of Dahli’s famous melting clocks draped limply over tree branches. If you looked closely, you could see the fabric hands of the clocks move and hear the soft ticking of gears at work. Devona wore a form-fitting black leather outfit, as she often did, and it looked damned good on her. She was a petite blonde who appeared to be in her twenties, but in truth was in her seventies. She might have been only half vampire, but that was enough to significantly slow down her aging process.
This was a relatively sedate part of the Sprawl – one of the reasons why I’d chosen to rent an apartment there – but the emphasis was most definitely on relatively. The Sprawl is the Dominion of the Demon Queen Varvara, and she believes in absolute freedom. It’s rumored that the old Beast Alistair Crowley stole his infamous satanic commandant from her: Do as Thou Wilt. I wouldn’t be surprised. If the Sprawl doesn’t exist in a state of total anarchy, it’ll do until the real thing shows up. But like I said, this neighborhood was quiet enough, with pedestrians going about their business searching for prey or trying to avoid becoming prey – often at the same time – and vehicles of various makes, models, and degrees of sentience rolling, crawling, and scuttling down the street. To the right of the stone toad building was a misfortuneteller’s establishment, and on the left was a head shop (new and used, all species, original size and shrunken). Not exactly the most glamorous of neighbors, but they seemed… well, not normal, but harmless enough.
Devona finally decided to respond to my question. “Not thinking…”
A sinking feeling hit me. “Please tell me you haven’t bought the place. Sight unseen, no less.”
She shrugged. “All right, I won’t tell you.”
I suppressed a sigh. Devona was the half-human daughter of the Darklord Galm, and she’d spent most of her life living in his stronghold and serving as the caretaker of his collection of rare and powerful artifacts. So while she was chronologically older than me by several decades, in terms of actual life experience, she could be a bit naïve at times. And, as I’d been learning over the last couple months, a trifle impulsive.
“We talked about how it’s not a good idea to buy real estate without a thorough inspection first, remember?”
Devona turned to me, eyes narrowed and lips pursed. I’d seen that expression before. It meant Stop patronizing me, Matt. “I remember it quite well, and perhaps you’ll recall that my main motivation for purchasing the building was to acquire the name of the business associated with it more than the actual structure itself.” She smiled. “Of course, now that we’re here, I suppose we should go in and take a look around.”
This time I didn’t bother to suppress my sigh. I don’t need to breathe, but I have to take in air to talk, and while strictly speaking, I don’t have to sigh, sometimes a sigh can communicate more than a dozen well-chosen words.
“Couldn’t you have bought the name by itself?” I didn’t ask why she wanted it so badly. That was another discussion we’d already had.
The Midnight Watch was the security firm back in its day, Devona had said. Long before your arrival in Nekropolis, Matt. If you wanted something or someone protected, you hired the Watch. Even the Darklords were known to employ its services from time to time. If I’m going to go into business on my own, that kind of name recognition will help get me established. Besides, I was caretaker of Father’s collection for many years. I like things with a little history behind them.
I’d met Devona when she’d hired me to help her recover an artifact that had been stolen from Galm’s collection. In the process, we’d not only found the
t and saved the city from total annihilation, we’d also fallen in love. Makes for a great first date story, don’t you think? Unfortunately, Galm cast out Devona for losing the artifact in the first place – even though another of his children had been responsible for the theft – and so jobless and homeless, she’d moved in with me. She’d been helping me with cases ever since, and I thought we made a good team, professionally as well as personally, but Devona eventually decided she wanted to work for herself.
Please don’t take this the wrong way, Matt, she’d told me. I’ve loved working with you, but I served my father all my adult life… lived in his home, tended his property… I’ve never had anything of my own. Never had to make my own way in the world. I want to see if I can. I hope you’ll understand.
Of course I did. You don’t get to be the only private detective in a city full of monsters, demons, and witches without having a strong independent streak. I told her I loved her and admired her for wanting to start her own business – which was true, though I knew I’d miss her working with me. The mean streets of Nekropolis would seem a little lonelier without her by my side.
When I asked her what business she wanted to go into, she said, I was thinking security. A big part of my job for father consisted of overseeing the protections – both magical and mundane – on his collection. I could put that experience to good use in my own security firm. And if I advertise that I used to do security work for a Darklord…
I had to admit, it sounded like my love had a head for business. If things kept going this way, I might well end up working for her one day.
Devona turned back to examine the building once more. “I did check into buying the name. When the original owner died, the property defaulted into Varvara’s hands, and when I asked her if I could simply purchase the name Midnight Watch, she told me the name went with the property, and I couldn’t have one without the other.”
“I don’t suppose she gave you a reason.”
Devona looked at me as if I’d just said something incredibly stupid, and on reflection, I didn’t blame her. The Demon Queen did what she did solely for her own pleasure.
“All right, then tell me this: did she smile when she told you that?”
Devona’s face is normally pale – she is half Bloodborn, after all – but it went chalk white as the implications of my question hit her.
“I was afraid of that.” If Varvara finds something amusing, it’s usually bad news – especially if what she finds amusing is you. “So there’s something wrong with the building… probably very wrong. All right, let’s go find out what it is.”
I stuck my hands in my jacket pockets and started toward the building’s entrance.
Devona put a hand on my shoulder to stop me, and stop me she did, dead – if you’ll pardon the expression – in my tracks. She’s petite, but her vampiric heritage gives her greater strength than a human. I couldn’t have gone anywhere if I’d wanted to.
“No, Matt. If it’s going to be dangerous…”
I turned back to look at her. “I appreciate the concern, but this is Nekropolis. Everything is dangerous here: the only question is how dangerous. Besides, if you really want to set yourself up in business as the revived Midnight Watch, you’ll need to use this building, right?”
“That’s very sweet of you.”
She leaned forward and gave me a hard kiss on the lips. Devon knows I can only feel the pressure of her kisses, so she always makes sure there’s enough for me to feel. When she pulled back, she gave me a wry smile.
“And this gallantry of yours has nothing to do with your irritation over the fact that Varvara knew you’d come here with me to check the place out and was amused at the notion of you tangling with whatever lies inside.”
“Not in the goddamned slightest,” I said. “C’mon, let’s go.”
As we walked toward the door, I warned Devona to stay clear of the leech vines. The bloodsucking vegetation wouldn’t bother me – no blood – but Devona had plenty of the red stuff coursing through her veins, and it was half vampire. Leech vine loves vampire blood best of all. It’s like the finest of wines to the plant. Me, I find it poetic justice that one of the city’s greatest predators has a blood-thirsty nemesis that desires to feed on its liquid life essence, but the vampires don’t see it that way. That’s why the best leech vine exterminators in the city are Bloodborn.
The door was covered with leech vine, but since I’d known the building had been abandoned for years and had likely fallen prey to the vine, I’d come prepared. I took my right hand out of my jacket pocket and aimed the object I’d removed – a tiny figurine resembling a white ape – at the door. I spoke a single activating word and the ape’s mouth opened, unleashing a torrent of frigid air. The leech vine covering the door instantly turned black and fell to the ground. When the figurine was finished, I tucked it back in my pocket.
“What in the nine hells was that?” Devona demanded. “The stench is awful!”
“Yeti’s Breath,” I said. “It’s a great spell for killing leech vine.” I smiled. “Especially when your sense of smell is as dead as the rest of you.”
Devona looked as if she was desperately trying to keep the contents of her stomach where they belonged. “Give a girl some warning next time, all right?”
“Sorry.” Embarrassed, I turned away from her. When you’re dead, it’s easy to forget the strong impact that sensory input can have on others. Maybe, I thought, it’ll be better for Devona when she doesn’t have to work with me anymore.
I examined the door. It was covered with frost that was already starting to melt, but beneath it I could make out a metal plaque with these words engraved upon it:
The Midnight Watch: Guarding All Workhouses and Institutions Against Intruders and Meddling. Savage Beasts Employed.
“Catchy,” I said. I turned back to Devona. “Sense anything?”
60; In response, Devona closed her eyes and concentrated. Not only was she highly skilled at detecting wardspells, as a vampire-human hybrid, she possessed certain psychic abilities that most Bloodborn did not.
“Yes, I…” She broke off, frowning. Then she opened her eyes. “I thought I sensed something there for a moment, almost as if there was someone inside the building, but the feeling faded quickly. Most likely I was picking up psychic impressions from the businesses on either side.”
“Maybe.” But I didn’t believe it. I’d lived – or maybe I should say existed – in Nekropolis too long. Besides, if Varvara was amused at the idea of the two of us entering the building, there was definitely something Bad inside.
I pointed to the door knob. “How about that?”
Devona waved her hand over the knob several times and then bent down and examined it visually. She straightened.
“Clean. No traps, mystical or otherwise.”
I hmpfed. “For a security firm, it seems they weren’t too concerned with folks breaking in.”
“Wardspells are intricate to construct and require constant maintenance,” Devona said. “It’s been at least fifty years since the building’s been occupied Any wardspells on the door would’ve lost their potency and deactivated long ago.”
“Fifty years, and no one’s bought the building in all that time? Or at least tried squatting in it? I find that hard to believe.” And considering the kinds of things I’d had to learn to believe in since coming to Nekropolis, that was saying something. “This might not be the most prime location in the Sprawl, but real estate here is always in high demand. After all, it’s sin central for the entire city, and that means there’s a hell of a lot of darkgems to be made here. What would keep a building in the Sprawl vacant for so many years? Wait – let me guess. It’s supposed to be haunted. And not just regular haunted, with a few ghosts flitting about the rooms to lend the place some gloomy atmosphere. It’s haunted with a capital H, by some kind of unknown and incredibly deadly force that will shatter our minds, mutilate our bodies, and ravage our souls, right?”
“As a matter of fact…”
I didn’t sigh this time. I was too depressed to bother.
“This probably isn’t the time or place for this, Devona, but I think you and I really need to work on our communication skills.”
I tried the knob and wasn’t surprised in the slightest to find it unlocked. I turned it (far too easily, I might add), pushed the door open (it didn’t even have the good grace to creak), and we went inside.
It was dark, of course. Any windows were completely covered by leech vine, but since Nekropolis is shrouded in the perpetual dusk created by Umbriel the Shadowsun, it would’ve been dark inside even if the windows were clear and left wide open. Devona’s hybrid eyes could see in the dark far better than my undead ones, so while I took a flashlight out of my jacket pocket, I didn’t turn it on right away.
After several moments, she said, “We’re in a foyer, but I don’t see anything special. You might as well go ahead and turn your light on, Matt.”
I flicked the flashlight’s switch and played its beam around to get my bearings. It was just as Devona had said: a foyer with stone walls and ceiling and a marble tiled floor. Nice enough, in a cold, Spartan way, but nothing to e-mail home about. There were sconces on the walls where greenfire torches had undoubtedly once burned to light the place, but the mystic flames had died away decades ago, and without an Arcane torchlighter to rekindle them, it looked like we were stuck with my flashlight.
As we started slowly down the foyer, I said, “So, are you going to tell me why this place is supposed to be haunted?”
“The original owner and founder of the Midnight Watch was a warlock named Leander Crosswise. He was reputed to be a genius when it came to devising new and innovative wardspells and was also known for breeding some of the fiercest and most intelligent guard animals the city has ever seen. He ran the Midnight Watch very successfully for nearly a century before he finally decided to retire. But before he could, he was murdered, right here in the building, doors locked, wardspells in place. When one of his employees arrived for work the next day, Leander was found lying facedown on the floor of his office, a Dire Blade sticking out of his back.”
Nasty things, Dire Blades. Obsidian daggers with mystic runes carved into the surface, absolutely deadly to supernatural creatures, the Arcane included. They’re the favored weapons of the Dominari, Nekropolis’ version of the Mafia, but other criminals use them as well, provided they can scrounge up enough darkgems to purchase one of the things. They’re damned expensive, and a good thing, too, or else every low life in the city would have one.
By this time Devona and I had left the foyer and entered a large room that looked something like a den – dilapidated furniture, stone fireplace filled with cobwebs, musty old paintings on the walls, rotting wooden beams overhead. I assumed the room had been used as a place to meet clients and was likely impressive enough, in its time. There was no sign of anything out of place, and certainly no ghosts leaping out from behind the moldy couch or the cracked leather chairs, so Devona and I left to continue our exploration of the building. As we walked, I asked Devona some questions about the story she’d just told me.
“Was the murderer ever caught?”
“No. Leander was a prominent citizen in the Sprawl, so Varvara sent her best Inquisitors and Hellhounds to investigate, but they turned up nothing. She even asked Talaith to send some Arcane investigators, but their magic failed to locate a single clue, let alone reveal the identity of Leander’s killer.”
So the warlock’s employees were cleared and, while it was possible, if not likely, that Crosswise had enemies or even disgruntled clients who wished him ill, it seemed none of them had been implicated either.
“Did the investigators have any luck tracing the Dire Blade?”
Devona and I were walking down a hallway now. When we came to a door, we’d stop, Devona would check for wardspells or booby traps, and when she gave the all-clear, I’d open the door and shine my flashlight inside. All we found was office furniture: desks, chairs, filing cabinets and t
he like. Nothing of interest. At least nothing had jumped out of the shadows and tried to devour our faces – yet.
“The Blade belonged to Leander. As you might imagine, he owned quite a few weapons, some mystical, some not. Some he’d purchased for the business, some he’d picked up on various jobs. The employees all testified that the Blade was Leander’s.”
“And no fingerprints or DNA – or the magical equivalent – was found on the weapon,” I said. “Except for Crosswise’s.”
That didn’t necessarily mean anything. Nekropolis is lousy with beings who can manipulate objects magically or with the power of their mind. And a really good magic user could destroy any traces that they’d handled the weapon. But then again, two Darklords had sent their best investigators to look into Crosswise’s death, and even if a magic user had tried to remove any evidence they’d handled the weapon, investigators of that caliber would’ve found it.
“You said Crosswise was going to retire.”
“That’s right. He was killed on the night before he planned to officially retire, as a matter of fact.”
We’d just finished checking our third office and were headed toward our fourth. I was beginning to think that Varvara had been so amused at the thought of our coming here because she’d known the place would end up boring us to death.
“It might speak to possible motive,” I said. “Maybe someone resented Leander retiring. Was he planning on selling the business or giving it to a successor?”
“Neither,” Devona said. “He planned to close the business and sell the building. He wanted the Midnight Watch to end with him.”
“Maybe someone didn’t want him to sell.”
“Is that really enough motive to kill someone?”
We reached the fourth door. None of them had any names on them, but this was nicer than the others, made of sturdy black oak that I imagined had once held a highly polished sheen. I had no doubt this was Crosswise’s office.
“Back when I was homicide detective on Earth, I once arrested a man who killed his brother for changing the channel during his favorite sitcom. And it was a rerun.”
“Point taken,” Devona said as she waved her hands in the air over the door. I figured she’d find nothing and proceed to visually examining the lock, but instead she stopped her hand waving and frowned. “Something’s strange here.”
I can’t get cold chills anymore, but if I could’ve, I would’ve then.
“I’m getting that feeling again, like I did outside. As if there’s something alive in the office, only… not. Something that’s almost there but not quite.”
“You know, you still haven’t told me why people believe this building is haunted.” Although right at that moment, standing in a dark hallway before an ominous black door, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
“People have tried to enter the building since Leander’s death. Some report a force like a strong wind shoving them back outside. Others…”
“Go on,” I urged.
“Others have died in some particularly horrible ways. Bodies turned inside out, blood boiled in their veins, that sort of thing.”
“Lovely. And what distinguished those poor unfortunates from the lucky ones who were simply evicted?”
“The ones who died…” Devona paused, and time seemed to slow to a crawl while I waited for her to finish her sentence. “Were those who intended to purchase the building.”
“Once again, we so have to work on our communication skills! When were you planning on telling me this?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I was still trying to figure out the best way to tell you I’d already gone ahead and bought the damned building.”
The instant the words left her mouth, the door burst open and a roaring wind filled the hallway. The force slammed Devona into the opposite wall and held her there. The wind – or whatever it was – grabbed hold of me with insubstantial hands and started dragging me away from her. I fought it, tried to tear myself free of its grip, but there was nothing I could do. I could feel the force holding me, but when I tried to touch it, to grab hold and dislodge myself, I couldn’t feel anything. I dropped the flashlight. It hit the floor, luckily without breaking, and rolled into a position where its beam illuminated Devona. Her face was contorted with agony and bright dots of red covered her skin. Whatever this unknown force was, it looked as if it was drawing the blood out of her body through her skin. Vampires – even half ones like Devona – can take a hell of a lot of punishment and heal, but one thing they can’t recover from is the loss of their blood supply. Their power is in their blood, and if they’re drained, they have no magic to draw upon in order to heal themselves. I knew if I didn’t do something fast, Devona would die, and she wouldn’t be coming back.
I’d brought some other toys with me, various spells and such, but none of them would prove effective against the strange force attacking us. And with each passing second, the wind was pulling me farther from Devona. I had only seconds in which to act, and I had no weapons that I could use. Except the one weapon which has always served me best, whether I was alive or dead. My mind.
I thought fast. What did I know about the Midnight Watch, Leander Crosswise, and how he died? Devona had told me he specialized in creating new and powerful wardspells, that he also developed new breeds of strong, intelligent guard animals, and he was killed on the eve of his retirement, after which he planned to close his business and sell the building. And he was killed by a Dire Blade that had apparently wielded itself. Or been wielded by something that didn’t need a physical hand to hold it.
That’s when it came to me.
I shouted to be heard ove
r the roar of the wind. “She did buy the building, it’s true, but she did so in order to resurrect the Midnight Watch!”
It might have been my imagination, but I thought I felt the wind’s grip on me lessen, and it seemed I was no longer traveling so swiftly down the hallway away from Devona. Encouraged, I continued.
“Her name’s Devona Kanti, and she hopes to start her own security business right here, in this very building, and she plans to use the name Midnight Watch! It’s a proud, noble name, one she’s honored to be associated with!”
Blood had begun trickling in rivulets from Devona’s pores, and while she was obviously in pain, she still possessed enough presence of mind to pick up on what I was doing.
“It’s true! I love the history associated with this place, and all I want to do is make the name Midnight Watch mean something in the city again!”
The wind’s roar subsided to a mere whisper, and I was no longer being dragged away from Devona. I started toward her just as she slumped to the floor. By the time I reached her, the wind had died away completely and the hallway was silent again, save for the sound of her pained breathing.
I knelt beside her and took her hand. “Are you going to be all right?”
“I… I think so. It hurt like hell, but I didn’t lose too much blood.” She managed a weak smile. “You’re going to have to take me out for a big meal tonight, though.”
“You’ve got it.”
She tried to stand, but I encouraged her to sit for a few more moments to give her metabolism time to counter her blood loss.
“So, are you going to tell me what you figured out,” she asked, “or are you going to make me guess?”
“Once the wind – or whatever it was – attacked us, it seemed obvious to me that it must’ve wielded the Dire Blade that killed Crosswise. And that it was the force responsible for killing anyone who tried to purchase the building in all the years following. This force was clearly here before Crosswise was killed, and since it’s remained here, that means it’s part of the structure. And if Crosswise was such a skilled warlock, I can’t believe there was any mystical force attached to the Midnight Watch that he didn’t know about. So the force was something he was aware of but thought he had no reason to fear. And evidently he didn’t: until he decided to retire and sell the building. When you told me what his specialties were –”
Devona’s face lit up with sudden understanding. “It’s a wardspell, isn’t it? A supremely sophisticated one that Leander created!”
I nodded. “But more than that. You said he also bred guard animals – highly intelligent ones. I think the force is both a wardspell and a guardian, and it’s smarter than Crosswise gave it credit for. When he planned to retire and sell the building –”
“The ward creature would be sold to, for it’s tied to the structure. In a way, it’s the lifeforce of the building.”
“Crosswise was going to sell the building, and it’s my guess any new owners wouldn’t want such a powerful being as part of their new property.”
“So Leander planned to remove the spell, which meant the ward creature would cease to exist. So it was defending itself when it killed Leander.”
“Yes, just as it believed it was doing every time a potential new owner entered the building. That’s why it only evicted others. The creature didn’t perceive them as threats. I hoped that if I could make it realize you weren’t a threat, it would break off its attack. Luckily, I was right.”
Devona smiled. While streaks of blood remained on her face, neck, and hands, her color was less pale, and she seemed stronger. I stood, reached down, and helped her to her feet.
She gave me another hard kiss on the lips, and though there was still a bit blood on her mouth, I didn’t mind at all. You come to expect that sort of thing when you’re in love with a vampire. She has it worse; she has to worry about whether one of my lips might fall off when we kiss.
She took my hand and we started down the hallway back toward the front door.
“So,” I said, “does this uh, revelation alter your plans any?” I was trying to be careful with my words. I didn’t want to rouse the ward creature’s ire again.
Devona thought about it for a moment. “Well, I still want to run my business out of this building, and I think that with a little work, I’ll be able to make friends with the ward creature, and it’ll make a wonderful guardian for the place.” She paused, long enough for it to be a Meaningful Pause. “I’m not sure you’re aware of it, Matt, but we’ve taken an important step forward in our relationship today.”
Like a lot of men, I’m not always as aware of relationship milestones as my partner, and I wracked my undead brain, trying to figure out what Devona was referring to.
“Uh, you mean because you’ve officially established your independence?”
She grinned and punched me on the arm.
“No, silly. Because now we have a pet together.”
We continued on down the hallway, hand in hand.
Thanks to Angry Robot for letting me share. I hope you enjoyed!