Terminal City (Book One in the Terminal City Saga)
by Trevor Melanson
Copyright © 2016 by Trevor Melanson
Jacob Stockwell never made himself the center of attention. Traveling from city to city one tavern at a time ó befriending lonely strangers in the dim corners of America ó Stockwell was, at first glance, a wholly unremarkable man. And perhaps that worked in his favour.
For sooner or later, he would tell these strangers all the same tale. "Have you ever seen the devil?" he would ask. Because he had, heíd say. And not just through the deeds of wicked menó he had seen the devilís magic.
They called themselves necromancers, Stockwell would tell them, and heíd been tracking them all over this country to find out just how far the poison of necromancy had spread. They were possessed, he explained, made into Satanís minions. Heíd seen them destroy a manís soul with only a thought, watched him drop dead.
"Now just imagine there were more of them,"wrote Stockwell in a letter to one of his recruits. "Imagine they came after you or, worse, your children, setting them on the path to Hell. Thereís a sickness spreading under Americaís feet, in her soil, in her roots. If good men like you and I donít fight back soon, it will be too late."
And so some of them did. Thus, 1876 marks the birth of the modern inquisition.
The rest, as we know only too well, is history.
óSamuel Benedict, The New Necromancer
* * *
It was Friday night in Manhattan and people were traveling in packs, laughing, yelling, womenís heels clamoring like hooves on cobblestone. Simon Paisley was middle-aged, overweight, and all but invisible to everyone around him. He caught a whiff of perfume as a group walked by, reminding him of the last time heíd been close enough to smell a woman. It had been a while.
In his mind, where Simon spent most of his life nowadays, he was planning the rest of his night in thirty-minute intervals. He figured heíd arrive home at about 10:30 ó it had been another late night at the office ó and that he would eat dinner until 11:00. Something microwavable. Then heíd take a half-hour bath. At 11:30, he would put on a movie, though he hadnít decided which one yet, and afterward heíd go to bed, assuming he didnít fall asleep on the couch. That was happening more and more.
Simon had grown increasingly fond of routines. He took pleasure in compartmentalizing his days, his life.
But thereís a problem with plans, and itís that they have one hell of a natural enemy: chaos theory. A single moment in time, a single eventó thatís all it took to undo everything. Simon had learned that lesson the hard way.
The street light turned red.
Stepping briskly, Simon crossed the intersection, car engines humming on either side of him. He was already sweating through his dress shirt; fall was just around the corner, but summer had decided to go out with a bang. With his free hand, Simon loosened his tie and unfastened the top button of his shirt. Heat never used to bother him like this, but heíd put on some extra pounds over the last few years. Divorces could do that.
Simon turned the corner, his Upper East Side apartment popping into view. It was modest, all he could afford in Manhattan with the costs of child support. He didnít mind making the payments, though. He loved all three of his kids, more or less equally, and unlike their mother, they still reciprocated that love. It was too bad she didnít want them living with a necromancer.
Heíd been a necromancer for twenty-six years now, Simonó a fact he regretted revealing to his ex-wife. It happened five years ago. Heíd forgotten to lock the bottom drawer in his desk one day, and Sharon had bumped it open the next. Curiosity took care of the rest. She confronted him about the books sheíd found, confused, and Simon, well, thatís when he did something stupid. He told her the truth. He told her he was a necromancer. He explained that he used spirit energy to make things, to fix them, that he could communicate with the dead. He healed the paper cut on her index finger as proof, but proof made it worse. Proof made it unforgivable.
At least he got a good joke out of it. "How do you get a Catholic to file for divorce?" heíd say. "Ya tell her youíre a necromancer."
Just then, Simon noticed a white, mostly windowless van idling out front of his apartment building. He wondered if someone was moving in. The vanís back door slid open. A man stepped out. He was much taller than Simon and dressed in a black suit. His eyes were fixed on him, and then so was the rest of him.
"Can I help you?" asked Simon.
"You need to come with me," replied the tall man.
"You need to get in the van." He grabbed Simonís shoulder. "Right now."
"Get your hands off me." Simon stepped back. "What do you think youíre doing?"
The tall man, it turned out, was not a patient man. "No more warnings," he said. "Inside. Now."
Simon wasnít going to comply. If anything, he was going to run, but the tall man must have seen flight in his eyes. Before Simon could go anywhere, he was pinned against the passenger door, easily outmuscled. When it dawned on him to call for help, the tall man covered Simonís mouth with one large, rough hand. Simon made a muffled cry. Then he felt something sharp prick his neck. He bellowed another muted howl and tried to wriggle free, but his strength was diminishing. The world around him started to spin.
"See you soon, Mr. Paisley," said the tall man, removing an empty syringe from Simonís neck.
Simon hit the pavement.
* * *
The sound of a dripping pipe. Footsteps. Voices, but he couldnít make out the words.
Simon was coming to. He lifted his head and opened his eyes. He was indoors, someplace he didnít recognize. The lighting was dim. Cracked concrete comprised the floor; rusty copper pipes lined the low ceiling. He couldnít see the wallsó lost, like he was, in the distant darkness.
Simon was sitting in a rickety wooden chair with his arms behind his back. His wrists were bound together with duct tape, his legs and torso tied to the chair. His head was pounding. He tried to recall what had just happened and it took him a minute to remember. The white van. The tall stranger. The needle. What had happened after that, Simon hadnít a clue. How much time had gone by, he couldnít say.
"Our friend is awake," said a man behind him.
Simon could hear two of them, but only one stepped into view. Simon didnít recognize him. He wore a black suit not unlike the tall manís.
"I hope you slept well," he said, an unlit cigarette dangling between his lips. He reached into his coat pocket and fetched a silver matchbox; it was embossed with a crucifix. "Iím Mr. Huxley." He swiped a match along the strike strip. "Behind you is Mr. Underwood. Do you know why youíre here, Mr. Paisley?"
Mr. Huxley was an ugly manó a lived ugly, not born ugly. His dark brown hair was greasy and slicked back, exposing the corners of his receding hairline, and his hook nose looked like it had been broken more than once, probably for good reasons. Simon already hated him.
"No," replied Simon, "I donít." But he did. He knew exactly why he was here and who these men were too. It took him a second, but now there was no mistaking it. They were inquisitors. Heíd never seen one before now, an inquisitor that is, but heíd heard about them. Every necromancer had, and every necromancer watched out for them. Like necromancers, they kept their existence secret, and thus the war between them remained all but invisible. For Simon Paisley, however, it had just come into plain sight.
"I said I donít know why Iím here," repeated Simon, even less convincingly this time. "I donít know what you want with me."
Mr. Huxley stared at him disapprovingly, sucking on his cigarette, listening to the pipe drip. Another minute passed.
"For Godís sake, I donít know anything." Simon raised his voice, spit flying from his lips. "Whoever youíre looking for, it isnít me." The grim reality of his situation was sinking in: they would torture him unless he confessed, and if he confessed, they would kill him.
"I hear you." Mr. Huxley was apparently back on speaking terms. "But Iím not sure I believe you. Do you, Mr. Underwood? Do you believe our friend here?"
"Canít say I do," said Mr. Underwood from somewhere behind Simon.
It all sounded very rehearsed.
"Thatís two against one." Mr. Huxley looked amused. "So what is it youíre not telling us, Mr. Paisley?"
"How many times do you want me to say it?" asked Simon, shrugging, shaking his head. He leaned forward and whispered his words this time: "I donít know what the hell youíre talking about."
"Interesting," replied Mr. Huxley, "because your ex-wife thinks otherwise." He was smiling victoriously, but like his words, Mr. Huxleyís emotions felt practiced. "We inquired about you. She had lots to say, Sharon did, and it wasnít, wellÖ particularly flattering. But she was quite helpful, a good God-fearing woman too. We liked her, didnít we, Mr. Underwood?"
"Sheís a liar." Simon was now as furious as he was frightened. He wanted to kill these men almost as much as he wanted to save himself. Unlike his present company, however, heíd never killed anyone before, but he got thinking that he knew how, at least in theory.
"Seemed like an honest woman to me," said Mr. Huxley.
Simon had heard enough. He closed his eyes and dropped his head to his chest. Then, no louder than he breathed, he began to chant. Mr. Huxley didnít hear him, too busy listening to himself. Mr. Underwood, too deaf, listened to his partner as well, like an eager elementary school student.
"Would be a weird thing to lie about," said Mr. Huxley. "Still, weíre thorough people. Youíre not here because of something your wife said. At least, itís not the only reason. Weíve scoured your apartment, Mr. Paisley. Youíre a man with many secrets, but you cannot hide them from us. We know who you are. We know what you are."
Simonís incantation was now a whisper, its words crystallizing with clarity. Though not comprehension: Only men and women whoíd died could truly understand Deathspeak, the language of the deadó the language of necromancy.
Mr. Huxley, finally taking notice, furrowed his brow and took a step back. "What the hell do you think youíre doing?"
Simon reopened his eyes. They were red ó solid red ó and aimed squarely at Mr. Huxley. The inquisitor fell to the ground choking, streams of blood pouring from his mouth and nose. But unfortunately for Simon, his attack ended as quickly as it had begun; a large, familiar hand covered Simonís mouth, silencing him and stopping the spell.
Mr. Huxley was on his hands and knees, moaning and grunting, spitting out mouthfuls of dark blood. "Son of a bitch!" A string of reddened saliva dangled from his bottom lip. Slowly, he picked himself back up. His face was whiter than heaven, but he managed to stand, if only barely. He wiped the blood from his mouth with the back of his hand, red seeping into his sleeve, then looked back toward Mr. Paisley, less confidently than beforeó but far more angrily, and that was worse.
"That was a very bad idea," he said, panting. "A very. Bad. Idea."
"Would that count as a confession?" asked Mr. Underwood.
"Yeah," said Mr. Huxley. "That would count as a confession."
Simon stared at Mr. Huxley with irreconcilable hatred in his eyes, but the red had faded from them.
"Any last words?" asked Mr. Huxley.
Mr. Underwood released his hand from Simonís mouth but kept it close, ready to mute him again.
"Fuck you," said Simon. "Youíll get what you deserve. Sooner than you think, you bastards."
"You donít say," replied Mr. Huxley, unimpressed. "Care to elaborate?"
"Rowlandó heís back. He will kill you, you know. You and your oversized partner. And thereís nothing you can do to stop him."
"Rowlandís dead." Mr. Huxley lit another cigarette and walked past Simon, who was still bound to his chair, unable to see either of his captors.
"You wish," uttered Simon.
"Not even necromancers are immortal, Mr. Paisley, as youíre about to find out," said Mr. Huxley. "Rowlandís no exception, and neither are you. Iíd recommend asking God for forgiveness right about now, although Iím not sure God will believe you. I wouldnít blame him. He calls necromancy an Ďabomination unto the Lord,í did you know that? Deuteronomy eighteen. Not that you would care." He stepped back into Simonís field of vision with a red gasoline jug in hand and a roll of duct tape around his wrist.
"Youíre not God," said Simon.
"Neither are you," replied Mr. Huxley, stepping forward. "But your kind, you have trouble understanding that." He pointed the jug at Simon; it made a swishing sound. "You act as if, well, you seem to think your magic makes you like him. But it doesnít, Mr. Paisley. Youíre not a god, certainly not the one true God. At best, youíre a pebble with mountainous delusions. Itís kind of funny, donít you think?"
No one laughed.
Mr. Huxley coughed, took another drag off his cigarette, and then looked like a man gathering his thoughts. "Iím sure you know the story of Adam and Eve," he said. "Even a necromancer like you. Itís aÖ cultural touchstone. Now, my friend, what do you think the story of Adam and Eve is all about?"
"Iím not your fucking friend." Simon glared at him disdainfully. "And I donít care. Itís a fairytale."
"Actually, itís a story about evil," said Mr. Huxley. "Evil is not a fairytale. On this, I hope we can both agree. Adam and Eveís story is about the form that evil takes here on Earth. As the story goes, Satan, disguised as a snake, tricks Eve into eating forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which angers God, who in turn kicks man and woman out of Edenó yada, yada, yada.
"But why did God forbid them from eating that fruit in the first place?" he asked. "Godís a smart god, the smartest a god could be, so he must have had a good reason. Was he just toying with them, testing their obedience?
"No," said Mr. Huxley, crouching down so he and Simon were eye level. "God doesnít play games, Mr. Paisley.
"God wanted us to understand that evil knowledge is harmful. He hoped that, all by ourselves, through our wisdom and humility ó the virtues he was gracious enough to give us ó we would triumph over the temptation of evil knowledge. Thatís why he gave us the choice, necromancer. Because he believes in free will. But we made the wrong one, and we continue to make wrong choices. You especially, Mr. Paisleyó youíve made a lifetime of wrong choices."
Mr. Huxley finished his cigarette and flicked it to the floor.
"Evil knowledge is a plague," he said. "It pollutes your soul from the inside, destroys your goodness, your innocence, your faith, until all thatís left is a shell, scraped clean like a hollowed clam. The man you were, the man made in Godís imageó gone. Which is bad enough, but youíre also contagious, Mr. Paisley. Your wonderful wife had the strength to resist, but what about your childrenó will they? Just how many more souls would you corrupt if we let you walk out of here tonight?
"Thatís what weíre fighting against. Isnít that right, Mr. Underwood?" Mr. Huxley held his gaze on Simon.
Mr. Underwood stepped into view and nodded his big head. "Need to keep it contained," he said.
Simon forced a sharp laugh. "Justify it however you like," he replied. "At the end of the day, you just like killing people."
Mr. Huxley looked at him for a couple long seconds, swiping a drop of sweat from Simonís brow with his index finger as if to sample it. Simon was drenched in the stuff, his clothes clinging to his arms and legs.
"Ali Kazmi," said Mr. Huxley, staring over Simonís shoulder, staring as if there was something behind him worth staring ató though Simon suspected there wasnít. "Good kid. Lived in Toronto with his mom and dad and his older sister, Maryam. He liked hockey and video games." Mr. Huxleyís tone had changed. "Ali was just twelve years old when Jared Snow paid him and his family a visit. But Jared didnít care about Ali. He didnít care about Maryam or Mom and Dad either. Jared only cared about two things: himself and necromancy. Everything else wasÖ sustenance, a resource for the taking. Every person, every home. He would kill and steal and kill and stealó over, and over, and fucking over. He felt nothing. He couldnít. The necromancy hadÖ numbed his humanity. It had consumed him, Mr. Paisley, and in doing so came to consume Ali. He was just twelve years old when Jared Snow murdered him and his family. Murdered him because that bastard needed a place to stay for a week."
Mr. Huxley bit off a piece of duct tape and slapped it over Simonís mouth, locking in his last words. "Iíve let you say your piece, my friend," he said in almost a whisper, "but youíve got it all wrong. Itís necromancers who like killing people. Iíve seen too many innocent men and women ó children ó die at the hands of your kind in ways you canít imagine." He spoke softly. "Iím sorry itís come to this. I donít want to kill you. I donít like killing people, Mr. Paisley." Then he stood back up. "But you give me no fucking choice."
Mr. Huxley stepped forward, lifting the jug of gasoline over Simonís head, and began to pour. He showered his hair, his shoulders, drops splashing Simonís face, and then the rest of him ó his arms and legs, his fingers and feet ó until the jug was empty and every part of Simon was slippery and smelled like gasoline. Then Mr. Huxley dropped the container, and it was time.
The gas was painfully pungent. Worse, some had seeped into Simonís mouth. It tasted like it smelledó like poison. He didnít want to die, but he knew this was the end. The thing was, deep down Simon had always figured he was immortal. He didnít think about itó he didnít want to think about it. He just felt it, and left it there. Now, for the first time in his life, his immortality had abandoned him, and he was left feeling like some animal meeting its inevitable end. Like heíd been so stupid for not seeing it sooner, for not believing in death even as he practiced in it.
Mr. Huxley reached into his pocket and pulled out his pack of cigarettes. He flicked the lid open and looked inside. "Last one," he said, fetching his matchbox, the silver one with the cross. Mr. Huxley lit the cigarette. But not Simon, not yet. "I know it might seem unnecessarily cruel," he said, "burning you alive." He took a long drag. "But they say if you donít burn a necromancer, if you donít get rid of the body, they might come back from the dead. Not sure I believe that myself, but I like to think the fire isÖ cleansing. That maybe it can burn the corruption out of you, give you hope for Purgatory. But Iím not God."
Then Mr. Huxley lit a second match and took a step backward. "Farewell, Simon." He flicked the small flame forward.
Simon watched the match spiral through the air, wondering if it might go out before it reached him, not that it mattered now. The rest happened so quickly. The fire landed on his lap then raced toward every trace of gasoline, engulfing every part of him, until the inferno was all he could see or smell or inhale, until fire was his universe and death his best friend.
They had taken everything from him: his world, his dignity, his life. Everything but his thoughts. Those were still his, at least for a while. Like everyone who dies and goes to the Spirit Realm, Simon would fade into nothingness, into less than a memory. He would fade, and he would fade alone. But for now, even as the fire scorched his flesh, even as he screamed unconsciously, he held onto his mind.
In the end, it was his ex-wife he thought about. Sharon, who had betrayed him. Sharon, for whose folly he was dying. Sharon, who was still the love of his life. And so he remembered the good times and forgave her for the rest.
* * *
Simon Paisleyís body was no longer recognizable, melted into a black and red sculpture that could have been any human being. They all looked the same afterward, thought Mr. Huxley, standing five feet away with an empty bucket in hand. The fire had been put out, but the body was still sizzling. Still hot with life.
Mr. Huxley slid a cell phone out of his pants pocket and dialed the only number on the contact list.
After four rings, a woman answered. "Heís dead, I hope."
"Simon Paisleyís been taken care of," replied Mr. Huxley.
"Good, good. Glad to hear it. Keep up the good work, hun." She suddenly sounded pleasant, if not a bit condescending, exaggerating her Texas accent as she often did. "But our work never ends, now does it? Your next target is Lester Wright. Mr. Wright has been on our list for quite some time. We have reason to believe heís somewhere in Terminal City. An informant of ours claims she saw him on a bus."
"Terminal City," he said. "So, youíre sending us to Canada, eh? Itís been a while."
"Very funny, Mr. Huxley, but I wouldnít quit your day job. Iíll email you the details."
"Thereís one more thing." Mr. Huxley hesitated.
"Spit it out, sugar," she replied.
"Well, itís probably nothing, just an empty threat, but Mr. Paisley, he said that Rowland hadÖ returned or something."
"Rowland? Youíre sure he said Rowland?" She sounded concerned. Mr. Huxley was surprised. She never sounded concerned.
"Iím sure, yeah."
"That isÖ interesting. Well, donít worry your little head about it. Just focus on your job, Mr. Huxley." She hung up.
Mr. Huxley pocketed his phone a little too aggressively. "Between you and me, Mr. Underwood," he said, "Ms. Westcott really pisses me off sometimes."
"Whyís that?" asked Mr. Underwood.
"She can be really disrespectful, you know? Not just with me but everyone. She always seems so ó whatís the word ó dismissive, I guess."
Mr. Huxley rolled his eyes. "Never mind," he said. "Can you go fetch the bags? Iíll wait here."
Mr. Underwood nodded before wandering off into the darkness. Mr. Huxley listened to his heavy footsteps clanking up the metal staircase at the far end of the room. He listened until he couldnít hear them anymore. And then Mr. Huxley keeled over, planting both hands on his knees, and began to dry heave.
"Youíre saving lives." His voice was low and raspy. "Youíre doing Godísó"
Mr. Huxley burped, exhaled, then spat on the ground.
After a minute of slow, deep breaths, he stood back up, reaching into his coat for another cigarette. When he flipped open the pack, he remembered he was all out.
Mr. Huxley sighed.