Okay, so the thing about the upcoming Kickstarter campaign (launching October 1!) is that I really *can’t* use a teaser from the actual story as part of the incentive text, because it starts with a scene from RAVEN CALLS and no way no how am I spoiling that scene. :) So I’ve written the first couple chapters of URBAN SHAMAN from Gary’s point of view for a bit of flavor text as to what kind of voice the novella will be in. Enjoy!
Three days after my 73rd birthday, a leggy brunette climbed into my cab and changed my life.
She was rude, snapping, “Drive,” without even lookin’ at me. That kinda fare always set my teeth on edge, superior and holier-than-thou. Never judge somebody by how they treat you, judge ‘em by how they treat the cabbie.
Still, drivin’ paid the rent. “Where to?”
“I don’t know. Northwest.”
I eyed her in the mirror. There was me, pretty hale for a guy that age, with all my hair and teeth I wasn’t sayin’ either way about, and there was her, twenty-six and pretty in the way women who don’t know how well they’re put together can be. She wore her hair real short, which I thought most dames should. What with her doin’ something on a notepad, scribbling and muttering, I couldn’t see her eyes to tell the color. She looked tired, though, like she’d come off a European flight, not just something continental. I said, “Northwest, the airline? It’s just a couple feet up the term–”
She snarled, “To the northwest.” I glared at her and drove. A minute later, as if she hadn’t started out rude, she asked a favor: “You got a map?”
No self-respecting cabbie would admit it if he did. “What for?”
“So I can figure out where we’re going.”
I turned around and stared at her.
“Watch the road!”
Watching the road was for sissies. I twitched the steering wheel and cars merged around us, safe as houses. The fare slumped in her seat, green eyes wide, and got politer: “Do you have a map, please?”
“Yeah, yeah, all right.” I threw a city guide over the seat and listened to pages rattle as she shuffled through them. A couple minutes later she said, “Okay, we’re going to Aurora.”
“You sure? That ain’t such a good neighborhood, lady.”
“I’m sure. I’m trying to find somebody who’s in trouble.”
I lifted my eyebrows at her in the mirror. “Good place to start.”
She scowled at me. I smiled back, my best patented seen-it-all smile that told pretty young things not to mess with me, and instead of messing, she asked if I
had a cigarette. I shook my head. “Those things’ll kill you, sweetheart. My wife died of emphysema on our forty-eighth wedding anniversary. You want a smoke, kid, find it somewhere else.”
She looked embarrassed, but didn’t have the smarts to quit while she was ahead. She muttered, “I’m not a kid,” and I eyed her in the mirror again.
“You’re twenty-six, doll. From where I’m sittin’ anybody less than fifty is a kid.”
Her jaw dropped. “Nobody ever guesses my age right.”
“It’s a gift. I can tell how old people are.”
“Gets me good tips, especially with women in their forties. I give ‘em a big story ’bout how I always get ages right, and then I lie. Works like a charm.”
“You guessed my age right.”
“No point in lying. I never met anybody who didn’t want to be in their twenties. Look, why’re you headin’ to Aurora, doll? Nothing there but trouble, and you don’t look like the type.”
“I told you.” She put her head against the window. “Somebody’s in trouble. I saw her from the plane.”
That made my life a lot more interesting. I put my arm over the passenger seatback and twisted to stare at the fare. “You’re trying to save somebody you saw from an airplane? What the hell, you got some kinda hero complex? How the hell’re you gonna find one dame you saw from the air?”
“It’s basic math, for God’s sake. I got the approximate height and speed we were traveling from the pilot, so figuring out the distance wasn’t that hard, and I saw a modern church on a street with only one amber streetlight. If I can find it before the lights go out–”
“Then you’ll be the first one on a murder scene.” My day was gettin’ a lot more interesting. The guys back at dispatch would love this one. I was gonna get free coffee for a week off this story. Couldn’t let her know I was lookin’ forward to whatever came next, though, and it was only God’s own truth when I said, “You’re nuts, lady, and desperate for thrills.”
She snapped, “Like it could possibly be any of your business,” which was true enough, but I never met a cabbie who didn’t think everything his fares did was his business.
“Relax, sweetheart. A pretty girl like you oughta be on her way home to her sweetie, not–”
“I don’t have one.”
“With your personality, I can’t figure why not.”
The fare put her face in her hands. “Haven’t you ever just really felt like you had to do something?”
“Yeah, sure. I really felt like I had to marry my old lady when she got knocked up.” It wasn’t true, but the fare had gotten in my cab, not the other way around. She got whatever story I felt like tellin’ today. That was the beauty of driving fares. Them, me, we were all different every time. “I never felt like I had to go chasing broads I saw from airplanes, though. I got troubles of my own.”
“Yeah, well, maybe I’ve got enough that I need somebody else’s to make the load seem lighter.”
I grunted, surprised. Usually kids in their twenties were way too young to realize that helpin’ somebody else eased their own burdens. I warmed up to the fare even if she was rude, and nodded at the rear-view mirror. “Arright, lady. Let’s go find your corpse.”
I got the fare to Aurora in record time, even if I had to say so myself, which I did, because she didn’t even say thanks, just looked out the window and said, “Streetlights are still on. We’re in time,” as I pulled into a gas station. She gave me an unfriendly look in the mirror. “I’m not paying your gas bill, buddy.”
“Aurora’s a big neighborhood, doll. Maybe somebody knows where your church is.”
Her eyebrows went up. “I thought men couldn’t ask for directions.”
“I ain’t askin’,” I said with aplomb. “You are.”
She got a kind of “well don’t that beat all” look on her face, and went to get directions from the skinny kid in the station. She even pulled cash out of her wallet and waved it at him, just like in the movies. If she didn’t leave herself enough to cover the fare, I guessed I knew where to come back to get it from. A minute later she came out looking triumphant and said “East three blocks, and if that’s not it, he says there’s another A-frame church about half a mile southwest of here. Hurry, it’s getting light out.”
I’d never met a dame as macabre as this one. “What, you want to get your hands in the blood while it’s still warm? You need help, lady.”
“For God’s sake, do you call everybody ‘lady’ and ‘doll’? My name’s Joanne, and you’re the one hung up on corpses. I’m hoping she’s still alive.”
“Yeah? You an optimist or just dumb?”
The fare–Joanne–fumbled putting the seatbelt on. All the sassiness went out of her and she turned her face away like a little girl. “You have no right to call me dumb.”
She was right. My wife woulda been ashamed of me. “Hey, look, lady. Joanne. You’re right. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”
“Yeah, whatever. Just drive.”
I shut up and drove. Took about two minutes to head east, but when we turned down the street the kid had directed us to, its streetlights were already out. Joanne whispered, “Fuck,” and me, still feelin’ like a jackass, offered, “That one’s still on.” Just one light, ugly and orange against the sky.
Joanne stared at as we went by, then flung herself around in the seat. “Oh my God, that’s it! Holy shit, that’s it, there’s the church! Stop! Stop the car!”
A guy as old as me shouldn’t get his heart rate up with excitement like that, but for a second I was just as pleased as she was. I hit the brakes, slamming her around in the back seat a little, then backed us into an empty church parking lot. “Maybe you’re not dumb, doll. Maybe you’re lucky.”
“Yeah, well, God watches over fools and little children, right?” She tumbled out of the cab and me, I put the parking brake on and charged after her. She slowed down and looked back at me. “What, you’re coming?”
“You just made me drive from Hell to breakfast, sweetheart. I’m not missin’ the grand finale. Besides, I never seen a fresh murdered corpse before.”
She muttered, “Have you seen stale ones?” then gave me a look like she was really seeing me for the first time. I was taller than her, not by much, which was sayin’ something, as I’m six-foot-two. She got done looking me over and said, “You look like a linebacker.”
Now there was a compliment to turn an old man’s head. I waved it off, tryin’ not to feel too pleased. “College ball, back before it turned into a media fest. It’s all about money and glory now.”
“It didn’t used to be?
“Nah.” I gave her my best grin. “Used ta be about glory and girls.”
She laughed, which was a whole lot better than the tight face and almost-cryin’ from a minute ago. Feelin’ better about myself, I headed for the church–big A-framed thing, nothin’ like the one-room plain wood church I went to when I was a kid–but the fare took off down the parking lot. I bellowed, “Thought your dame was inside!”
“Well, I hope she is! I just want to make sure there’s no blood.”
“Blood?” I’d been teasin’ about a corpse, but I sure as hell didn’t really want to see one. I bet Joanne didn’t either, even if she was hell bent for leather tryin’ to find one.
“If the guy with the knife caught her–”
“What guy with a knife?” This was gettin’ a whole lot more serious than it had seemed five minutes ago. I followed the fare down the parking lot, where she was lookin’ over the cement. “You didn’t mention nobody with a knife.”
“Didn’t I? I said somebody was chasing the woman–”
“You said somebody was in trouble. You didn’t say nothin’ about a knife!”
“Oh. Well, there was a knife. A guy with a knife, and he was good, graceful with it, like he’d learned to use it on the street.”
She didn’t look crazy. She looked kinda like a supermodel, with the long legs and arms and a kinda big nose that made her interestin’ instead of gorgeous. I guessed nobody said supermodels couldn’t be nuts, though, and if she thought she’d seen all that, a woman and a guy after her and a knife, from a plane, then I figured she was nuts. “Lady, you better have 20/200 vision or somethin’.”
She stood up from surveillin’ the parking lot. “I wear contacts.”
“Yeah, well, get ‘em checked, ’cause you mighta seen a guy from a plane, but you missed the tooth fairy’s visit.” I stomped past her to prod a bloody tooth another fifteen feet away.
Joanne said “Ew,” which was pretty fastidious for a dame lookin’ for a corpse. She came past me, looked over the ground, and pointed. “Somebody got cut, too. There’s spatter like blood off a knife.”
“From your dame in the church.”
“Maybe. I hope not.”
“Lady, if your broad’s in the church, what’re we doin’ lookin’ around out here?”
She wrinkled her nose, and kinda hopefully said “The light’s better over here?”
I couldn’t help but grin. “That joke was old an’ dumb when I was a kid, doll.” I threw her a quarter and we both went into the church.
It was worse inside than out. There was nothin’ homey about the place, nothin’ welcoming. Christ on the cross hung up there like an accusation above a plain white pulpit and an altar that looked big enough to sacrifice a bull on. Joanne tip-toed like she was afraid to make any sound on the hardwood floors. Me, I wasn’t so fussy. A house of God had to be either older than me or have some heart to get respect. I stomped along behind her, makin’ extra sure be noisy and off-set her quiet.
There wasn’t a soul in the place besides the two of us, though, which didn’t seem too positive for the broad she’d seen. She caught my eye, and, lookin’ none-too-happy about it, said, “I don’t know. I thought she’d be here. Hello? Hello?”
Turned out the church had one thing going for it: great acoustics. Joanne’s voice bounced to the rafters and rang around up there. She looked up like she could see the words themselves. “Wow. I’d love to sing in here.”
“You sing?” Dunno why it surprised me. She just didn’t seem like the singing type, not with the crazy gotta-save-the-girl thing she had going on.
She shrugged. “I don’t scare the horses.”
The way she said it made me think she probably had a great set of pipes and didn’t like admittin’ she was proud of it. People were funny like that. No skin off my nose either way. I took a look under the pews. “Yeah, well,maybe you can sing yourself up a dame, ’cause there’s nobody here, Jo.”
Her spine stiffened like somebody’d pushed an iron rod up it. “Nobody calls me that but my dad.”
“Yeah? What, did he want a boy?”
Compared to that, the scarin’ the horses tone of voice had been just beggin’ me to ask questions. I leaned on a pew, looking her over. Poor kid was all but bristling, waiting for me to push it a little too far. I was a nosy old bastard, but not dumb. “So what do they call you?”
“Joanne. Or Joanie. Sometimes people call me Annie, but not very often.”
My back reminded me I was an old man. I straightened up, rubbing the middle, and shook my head. “Not Annie. My wife was named Annie. You don’t look like one.”
She relaxed a little. “What’d your wife look like?”
“’bout four eleven, blonde, brown eyes. Petite. You gotta be at least a foot taller than she was.”
“Yeah. So call me Jo, I guess, if you want.”
We ain’t gonna be bosom buddies, the undertone said, and I figured she was right. Didn’t matter what I called her. But if I was givin’ her nicknames she didn’t like, she probably oughta know my name, at least. I stuck out a hand. “Gary Muldoon.”
She glanced at me, then shook my hand. “Yeah, I know. Your license said so. I mean, it said Garrison, but I never met anybody who went by that.”
“Me neither. I think my ma saddled me with it ’cause she hoped I’d be President.”
Joanne grinned. “President Garrison Matthew Muldoon. Sounds pretty good to me. Except, no offense, but they don’t elect guys as old as you anymore.”
“And when they did I wasn’t this old yet.”
Her mouth twitched like a laugh was tryin’ ta get out. “You realize that makes almost no sense.”
I leaned against a pew, arms folded smugly over my chest. “You understood.”
The laugh almost got out. “So I did.”
“Arright then. Look, lady, either there’s nobody here or you gotta do your thing and find your dame.”
“You got some kinda thing goin’ on here. Normal people don’t stick their heads out plane windows and see somebody needing rescuing, so do your thing and find her. My meter’s still runnin’.”
“Oh, great. I hope you take credit cards.” She walked all the way to the front of the church and around the pulpit. “Shit.”
I jolted off my pew and long-legged it up the aisle. “What? She dead?”
“No.” Joanne slumped against the pulpit. “There’s nobody here. I really thought she would be.”
“Hah. I won’t ask for a tip, just for the satisfaction of bein’ right.”
“Gee, thanks.” She shoved off the pulpit and stomped circles around the altar, then leaned on it. “Shit. I really thought she’d be here. Churches are supposed to be sanctuary, or something, you know?”
“About a million centuries ago.”
She gave me a dirty look. “Like when you were a kid, you mean.” She thumped the altar in emphasis.
Joanne jumped off like the damned thing had bitten her. I grabbed the pulpit so I wouldn’t grab my chest like some wheezy old guy, and we both stared at the open crack where the lid had moved. “…do you believe in vampires, Gary?”
“God damn it, I was tryin’ real hard not to think that way.”
Her eyes were big as saucers. “Kind of fits, though, doesn’t it? Scary church with a crypt, the living dead ris–”
“The sun already rose,” I said firmly. “No vampires after dawn, right?”
“There’s no such thing as vampires.”
She sounded like she was trying to convince herself. She sure as hell wasn’t convincing me. “Well?” I demanded. “Are you gonna look in it?”
I waited a minute. She kept standin’ there. “When?”
“As soon as I get up the nerve.”
I edged her way and prodded her in the back. She inched forward, feet squeaking against the floor. Had to be wearin’ rubber-soled boots to make that sound. I looked down. She was, and they were providin’ plenty of resistance, so I gave her a little more shove.
She glared at me. “You’re a big strong man. Aren’t you supposed to be plunging into danger before me?”
“I’m forty-seven years older than you, lady, and you’re almost my height and in my weight class. And it’s your vampire.”
That put the kibosh on her goin’ anywhere. She turned back to me, all pink-cheeked with offense. “I am not in your weight class!”
Dames, I swear. “How much do you weigh?”
“Isn’t it rude to ask a woman how much she weighs?”
“Nah, it’s rude to ask how old she is, and I already know. G’wan, look in the coffin.”
“Oh. Damn.” She took a half-step toward it, mumbling, “I weigh one seventy two,” like if we talked about her weight she didn’t have to think about vampires.
“I’m almost six feet tall. What’d you expect, that I weighed a hundred and thirty? I’d be a stick figure.” She peeked in the coffin’s tiny gap, then shivered. “Give me a hand with this.”
I crept forward, muttering, “I outweigh you by about sixty pounds, doll,” ’cause it turned out she was right, talkin’ about weight was better than thinkin’ about vampires.
“That’s why you’re a linebacker and I’m not. Push on three. One two three!”
Forget linebackers and weight classes, the shove we provided coulda come from a superhero. The lid shot off the box and crashed to the hardwood floor with a bang that shook the rafters. Joanne lost her balance and fell into the damned crypt.
She landed on another crazy lady tryin’ ta get out.
(x-posted from the essential kit)