If you’re a fan of gritty fantasy and blood magic, then today’s excerpt is for you!
Most people never learn what a Stringer is—and their lives are better for it. Lem, however, gets to learn about them and possession by alien intelligences the hard way. A must-read in the gritty supernatural series that includes We Are Not Good People from the “exhilarating, powerful, and entertaining” (Guardian) storyteller of the Avery Cates series, Jeff Somers.
For blood mages, the twenty-first century means hiding in the shadows, keeping society unaware of their incredible powers. The power-hungry sort plot quietly to manufacture tragedies bloody enough to give them the gas they need to cast something monumental. Lem and Mags, down-and-out bosom buddies to the end, try to be good, bleeding nobody but themselves, skating by on small Cantrips, cons, and charms.
So when the siren song of easy money comes their way in the form of helping out a friend, clearly no good will come of it. Blood mages are not good people. And neither are Stringers—alien intelligences that can take over a body and run it ragged. Stringers: they aren’t subtle, aren’t content to skulk in the shadows, and aren’t a houseguest anyone wants. Lem is about to learn what a possession hangover feels like—if Mags and his more tentative allies can figure out how to stop the demon without killing him.
Take a peek at this excerpt from e-novella THE STRINGER and see what’s up!
Ketterly had groomed for the occasion. Instead of his usual stained white suit, he wore a frayed brown one recently cleaned and brushed, his graying hair combed, his beard tidied, his ridiculously thick glasses polished in their black plastic frames. He still looked like a mage who used tiny spells to con people out of small amounts of money, but now he looked like a mage who conned people and took care of himself.
The building we pulled up in front of was a standard-issue brutal high-rise, a rectangle of ugly jutting up into the air. The doorman was a fat Spanish man in a faded blue uniform that looked like an ancient Halloween costume for a TV character no one remembered.
Ketterly parked in the red fire zone, turned his back on the doorman, and sliced his palm with a penknife. The smell of the gas in the air, as always, filled me with excitement and dread. Ketterly spoke six Words to encourage any cops to ignore his car, and when he turned to lead us into the building, the wound had healed into a thick pink line on his hand.
“Good afternoon!” he boomed, holding that same hand out to the doorman. “We’re here to see Mrs. Landry, in 24E.”
“Very good,” the doorman said, his face impassive and his voice neutral.
I looked at Mags. Outside of Ketterly’s tank, he looked enormous again: his blue jacket too tight, his pants not long enough. They simply didn’t make clothes big enough for him. His black hair was shiny and silky in the thin afternoon light filtered through clouds and the morning’s rain. Truth was, Mags was a damn fine-looking Indian man. Put him in a suit and wire his jaw shut, and the ladies swooned.
We rode the elevator up twelve floors in silence. Then Mags leaned over to me, his face worried. “I have to pee,” he said plaintively. I looked at Ketterly. Ketterly looked at me like he could see our forty bucks sprouting wings and flying away. I looked back at my partner. “Pete,” I said, “if you don’t speak for the next hour, I’ll buy you a hamburger after.”
His face lit up, then collapsed. “But I gotta pee.”
“Hold it,” I offered, “and I’ll throw in french fries.”
A complex series of expressions danced across Mags’s face as he struggled with this dilemma. That the huge man had a bladder the size of a golf ball I’d learned the hard way shortly after adopting him from Hiram, but he could also be induced to do almost anything with an offer of food. Watching an unstoppable force and an unmovable object do battle was fascinating.
“So what’s the story, D.A.?” I asked, turning from Mags’s expression of intense concentration as he attempted to seize control of his bodily functions.
Ketterly rocked on his heels and exhaled loudly. “Well, old Mrs. Landry is an old customer o’ mine, kid. I found more cats for her than you’d believe. How she loses ’em remains a mystery for the universe.”
Most likely explanation, I thought, was that Ketterly magicked the cats away so he could find them the next day and collect his fees, but I wasn’t going to queer his play.
“Anyways, she calls me this morning and says she has a much bigger problem. Says her husband’s gone crazy. He’s a different person, she says. Ranting, raving, smashing things. So she locked him in the guest bathroom and called me.”
“Not the cops?”
Ketterly made a face. “Me and old lady Landry, we got a relationship, kids,” he said. “She wanted my counsel.”
I wasn’t sure how finding lost cats equated marriage counseling, but then I strongly suspected at the bottom of that train of thought was a deep, dark well involving Ketterly seducing elderly ladies, and I fervently didn’t want to gaze down into it.
“So why are we here?”
He shrugged. “Believe it or not, Vonnegan, you’re my muscle.”
I glanced at Mags; I believed it.
The elevator dinged, and we stepped onto the twenty-fourth floor. It was silent and felt insulated, with a hum in the air that hinted at a hermetic seal, like a hotel at night, a world unto itself. The carpet was an aggressively dark green that looked black out of the corner of your eye, making me unsteady as we walked toward 24E. I felt like each step was taking me into thin air.
When we were about ten feet from the door, we stopped. The door was smashed, the lock busted out, and the whole thing hanging loose in the frame.
“Ah, shit,” Ketterly muttered, looking back over his shoulder and trying to decide if we were the type of Tricksters who would support a decision to just turn around and leave.
“We gotta at least take a look,” I said, envisioning forty dollars bursting into flames while Ketterly jetted off in his humongous car. “Old lady, right?”
I could tell Ketterly’s commitment to the Rules of Civilization was weak as he stared longingly at the elevators for a full beat before seeming to collapse slightly, shrinking. “Fine.”
I produced my switchblade and snapped it open, slicing into my palm with a practiced movement, shedding just enough blood for the job at hand. I spoke two Words and a blue witchlight enveloped my fist, feeding off the gas. I walked up to the door and held up my hand, feeling the sickening tug in my belly as the universe drank my life energy in exchange for the spell, and then I froze.
“Ah, shit,” Ketterly said. “Time to fucking go.”
The door was glowing brightly, the witchlight revealing the residue of some serious magical energy. Someone with some power—saganustari, maybe—had been here recently and laid down some heavy spells.
I hesitated. I wasn’t a powerful mage, slitting throats and casting major rituals. I bled to kite checks and confuse people so they left their wallets behind. I bled to steal PIN numbers and get free meals. I bled and bled and bled because I wouldn’t bleed anyone else, and so I was half alseep and exhausted all the time. Walking into a saganustari’s situation was an easy way to get burned, and Mags and I were one step away from ruin as it was.
“She might be hurt,” Mags said, his voice small and hesitant. “D.A. said she was old.”
I closed my eyes and heard Ketterly curse under his breath. We were going in with him or without him, and since Landry was his client, it was coming back on Ketterly anyway.
The witchlight sputtered out. I took hold of the door handle and pushed; the whole door fell inward, landing with a loud boom. I could see a short hallway leading to a large space that had been divided into a kitchen area, a living room, and a dining room. A set of glass sliders led to a small patio. Lacking a certain enthusiasm, I stepped gingerly into the place, followed by Mags and Ketterly, who was following the basic rule of all Tricksters: Keep the exits in play.
The place had been smashed to pieces. The glass doors were a pile of glass shards on the floor. Holes had been knocked into the walls, pictures torn from their hangers and flung wildly. The television lay on the carpet, bent and broken. All the kitchen appliances had been torn open, wires spilling out into the air, and the counters and cabinets looked like someone had taken a hammer to them. In the middle of the living area, a motorized wheelchair lay on its side.
I stopped in my tracks. I couldn’t explain it, but wheelchairs freaked me out. Just the mere sight of one made my heart pound and set my whole nervous system to vibrating.
“The bathroom,” I croaked. “You said she locked him in the bathroom.”
Swearing continuously under his breath, Ketterly nodded and led us down a hall to the left, into the bedroom, a small dark room that looked like a tornado had torn through it. Everything that had once been on the walls or upright was now strewn on the floor. Someone had torn up the mattress with a blade of some kind, covering everything in white fluff.
The bathroom door was closed. Light leaked around the edges.
“Mags,” I said, flicking out the switchblade again. Ketterly, still muttering, had his penknife out. “On count of three, open the door.”
Mags nodded and stepped over to the bathroom. The door was a cheap privacy model, hollow-core. Wouldn’t keep a determined mouse out, yet it was probably the only thing in the whole place that was still in one piece.
We sliced our hands. I went a little deeper because I didn’t know what to expect and had to be ready to cast something useful. The sweet, sour sense of gas in the air, rich and pulsing with energy, made my stomach turn and my heart race with desire. I ran through the bits and pieces I’d picked up. Hiram had stopped teaching me a long time ago, but he’d always told me I was good with the Words. If I heard a spell, I could usually replicate it and even improve the grammar.
With one casual heave, Mags tore the door free from the lock. For good measure, he kept tugging, and the door popped off its hinges as well.
An old woman was sitting on the toilet, holding a semiautomatic pistol in both hands. She fired twice, aiming more or less directly at me.
The room went completely silent. I waited to feel the burning of a fresh wound, the abrupt wave of dizziness I knew so well, but it didn’t come. She’d missed.
The old lady squinted at me. “Who the hell are you?” she barked, her voice surprisingly deep and whiskey-burned.
I pointed at Ketterly. “We’re with him, ma’am.” I flexed my hand, squeezing a few extra drops of blood. If she raised the gun again, I would have to speak some Words fast.
She followed my hand and sagged a little. “Oh, thank goodness, Mr. Ketterly,” she said. “You must help me.”