Society With Secrets
Jacqueline Kell was no stranger to waking up in strange places. Jackie couldn't remember much about last night. That wasn't a new experience either. Jackie stretched her arms and yawned. Larry Lynch sure knew how to throw a party. Jackie couldn't remember the last time she got this wasted.
It took the realization that someone had stolen her junk for her to panic. Jackie twitched a bit as the full gravity of her situation hit her all at once. She looked around her colorless confines. Three walls of solid concrete, a mattress on the floor, a toilet in one corner and bars blocking her only exit.
Her instinct was that she had been arrested in a drug bust and was now being held by the police. "I want my phone call," Jackie said as a guard passed by her cell. The flowing ochre robe didn't look like police attire but she was too focused on getting out of here to notice. The guard, a tall man with a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, turned to her. "Gimme my phone call."
From behind the tall man came an older gentleman dressed like King Henry VIII. The older man stared at Jackie with a look in his eyes she knew all too well: Hunger. "As you can see, we take great care to choose people no one will miss." The older man nodded as the tall man explained Jackie to him.
A chill came over Jackie when she realized that she might not be dealing with the police. The austere condition of the cell should have been a tip-off. Without a formal conviction, the worst she could get was the county lock-up. The county lock-up, while no Hilton, was not this much of a certifiable hellhole.
"Who are you?" As if her voice had been absorbed by the air, the two men continued their tour of the cellblock. The two men were obviously behind whatever was happening to her. They were not Bond villains. They were not going to reveal to her their scheme just because she had no hope of escape.
Jackie shook her head. She couldn't think that. There was always a chance. She might not be Houdini but, at least, she could think of some way to get out of this place. Still, this cell was unforgiving. The bars were spaced inches apart and the cell didn't have windows. Jackie also felt like she was underground. Jackie didn't know what she based that on. It was just a bad feeling.
Jackie could hear the voice of another woman in similar distress three cells over. Her screaming was a sound she was going to know all too well: Withdrawal. "Where the Hell is this place?" Jackie screamed at the bars.
Jackie closed her eyes and tried to remember the events of Saturday night. She was at Larry Lynch's party. She liked Larry Lynch a lot. He wasn't the judgmental kind. She could go into one of the bedrooms upstairs, take care of her business and not have to hear any crap about not wanting to deal with heroin addicts. Larry Lynch's attitude in life was simple. "Live and let live."
Jackie's memory caught a brief glimpse of what had brought her to this place. Someone had injected her with something. She knew it wasn't one of hers. The needle was too big to be one of hers. She knew her own junk well enough to distinguish it from somebody else's. Someone had drugged her.
Jackie checked herself over. As far as she could tell, no one had taken advantage of her while she had been drugged. That made sense. If someone had done that to her, they would have left her on the bed. Jackie Kell was being held here against her will for reasons she couldn't remotely fathom.
An hour, maybe, passed. The tall man returned to Jackie's cell. This time, he was alone. "Step away from the bars," he said with no particular urgency in his voice. The man thumbed through a set of keys hanging from his belt.
"You are being moved." Jackie didn't waste any time as soon as he unlocked the door. Jackie cobbled together whatever she could remember from self-defense class. This might be her first, last and only chance at freedom.
Jackie wasn't some damsel-in-distress waiting for a knight-in-shining-armor to save her. The streets of this city or any city were not for the faint of heart or the weak of spirit. She had been in her share of brawls whenever she didn't have a man to protect her. Which was often the case when it was the man she was getting into a brawl with. Bottom line: Jackie knew how to fight.
Jackie charged at him. She thrashed all her limbs at once at him. The tall man stepped off to the side and chopped her in the throat. As she struggled to breath, the tall man dragged her down the hall. Soon, they arrived in front of a reinforced steel door. "You're making this harder than it has to be." The tall man found another key on his large key ring. "You have been chosen."
Obviously, the tall man wasn't the average cokehead when it came to combat skills. He knew how to fight too. "Since we have many days before the ceremony is to be performed, it is only fitting that we get acquainted."
The tall man paused. "My name is Paul Utah." Jackie smirked. "Yes, I know but, believe me, that is my name. You are Jacqueline Kell, the only daughter of Jacob and Cecelia Kell. You ran away from home seven years ago."
Paul Utah inserted the key into the slot of the giant metal door. "You have not seen your parents since then and, despite your posturing, don't ever plan to." Paul nodded. "That's good. Because you will not see them again. Ever."
Jackie took a step back. Jackie was waiting for Paul to say something creepy like that. "Run if you wish, Jackie. You won't get far. I have guards posted at the only exit from this place. They are far more formidable than myself."
Paul with the improbable last name smiled. "I can't imagine why you'd run. This can be a good thing. You should be honored. Your life will serve a greater purpose than it ever has before. Few are chosen for this ceremony."
"Chosen?" What the hell had she been chosen for? The steel door swung open as if to reveal the answer to her unspoken question. Jackie stared at the room on the other side of the steel door. "Who the Hell are you people?"
"Pardon my French but why the Hell is this not working?" Dad gave Noah one of those death stares he remembered from early childhood. His reminder not to cross certain lines with him. "I mean, you made it look so easy, Dad."
Dad shook his head in disbelief. "Well, it wasn't. I haven't turned since I was about your age. I was rusty." Dad gripped Noah's shoulder. "Listen, don't beat yourself up. We each arrived at our first turns differently."
Dad cracked his neck. "For example, your mother. She was lucky. She had someone to help her master her gift and a natural talent for it. For your mother, this was as natural as breathing. In fact, she wasn't worried about the baby, I'm sure she'd be the one showing you this trick and not me."
Noah rolled his eyes. Noah could feel another "I was adopted" monologue coming on, this time with a supernatural twist. "I was adopted, Noah. My parents didn't understand what I was going through. Hell, I didn't understand what I was going through. If I hadn't met your mother's family, I'd have ended up in a lab getting dissected in the name of science."
Noah couldn't understand why Dad always had to turn everything into an issue of gratitude. Noah was grateful for the family his father never had. No question about it. He wasn't as grateful about not being able to wolf out on the many monsters he was fated to do battle with. In fact, it sucked big time.
"Perhaps, it'd help if I told you about my first time." Dad had taken the words right out of Noah's mouth. "Again, Grandma and Grandpa were good people but always I wondered about my real parents as orphans often do.
"When I started channeling, I knew what was happening to me had something to do with my real parents. I wanted to tell them and I didn't know what to say. I wonder if telling them the truth might have saved them."
Dad had a sad distant look in his eyes. He never talked about his foster parents' deaths before now. All Noah ever got on the subject was some vague indication from Mom about a home invasion turned deadly. That was obviously a half-truth. "They were werewolves sent to kill me. That was the first time I turned. When I realized that the people I loved were in danger."
Dad smiled a bit despite the bitter memory intruding on his present day. "Something about wanting to protect the people I cared about spoke to the wolf spirit. It was like I was speaking its language. It finally understood me and I it. After that, the actual process of turning was more of an afterthought. I was already a wolf defending my pack; I just needed the flesh to go with it."
Dad's smile faded. "But I was too late. The werewolves had ripped them open before I could work up the nerve to scare away their alpha. I guess I should be grateful they died. Being cursed is not something they could have lived with. Your mother's family found me. I was eighteen so I was able to live with them without any legal trouble. I wasn't an orphan this time. Just a man who lost his parents."
A tear formed in Dad's right eye. "I could only hope that your first time will be under less traumatic circumstances." Something finally clicked with Noah that hadn't set in until now. He belonged to a family of soldiers. Mom probably had just as many war stories as Dad. A part of Noah was suddenly curious to know how Mom's father died. Another part didn't want to know.
Dad's entire lifetime made a little more sense to Noah. Dad wanted to be there to protect innocent people, a twisted sort of penance for failing to do so for his own parents. That was why he became a cop. So he could continue his personal war against evil even after he became a civilian again.
"I've been meaning to ask you something, Dad?" For a wolf spirit in a human body, Noah had the curiosity of the proverbial cat. "Why do these powers switch off? I mean, there's always going to be monsters in the world, right?" Noah's gut told him that he wasn't going to like the answer.
"Of course," Dad agreed. "There will always be monsters but Benandanti are weapons of last resort. Somewhere out there, there's an evil that must be defeated. A terrible monster threatening to rend the world apart. Once it is gone, our powers go away until we are summoned again." Dad smirked. "Don't quote me on that. I'm only guessing here. Nobody really knows."
Dad stanced off in front of Noah. "Okay, listen, Noah, it's all about the right mentality. You are not a boy trying to turn into a wolf. You are the wolf. The wolf is the core of Noah Francis Walker. Just let yourself be who you are."
Noah's difficulty with turning made a little more sense to him now. If it was all about asserting his selfhood, Noah was dead in the water. Except for last week's badass channeling, Noah was the last word on human doormats. Noah had trouble speaking up in class, let alone becoming this wolf boy.
Two centuries of life made for an enthralling and vivid dream life. As the fiery demon above called the sun held sway over the mortal world, Victor Chirac slept. Not the sleep of a corpse, merely the sleep of a nocturnal beast.
Contrary to popular myth, he was not the living dead. He wasn't even really immortal in the strictest sense of the world. He could die, just not from the normal process of ageing which no longer took place inside of him. He was exempt from lingering consequences of violence done onto him save the destruction or removal of his last two remaining vital organs, his heart and his brain.
Victor shifted in his bed in a room without windows at the center of a grand ranch house on the edge of town. He had lived in the city for fifty-two years next March. It had become a home away from his true home, his mother and lover, the majestic country of France. Old homesickness fueled his dreams.
Knowing what happened to the surviving Old World set, Victor vowed not to become a deluded contented tyrant of a small cabal of zealous followers. The Middle Ages might have ended but his kind should still be movers and shakers of the supernatural underworld. Not pseudo-aristocrats driven mad by the fear of death at the hands of those skilled enough to destroy them.
As sun retreated into the horizon, a surge of energy went through Victor's body. The darkness had entered into him. He was free again to roam the earth in search of answers. The human guards posted outside his home went home for the evening. Their shift was over. Their services were moot now.
Victor always thanked them for their hard work. Humans were easy to manipulate in that way. A couple pleasantries thrown about with cynical yet concealed precision and they would treat him like their dearest friend. Give them any reason not to trust in him and he'd lose them forever, just as he almost did with Tyrese Hilson, who was serving as the host for their special guest.
Victor Chirac arrived at the J'Adore in the Silver Shadow. Victor had something of a weakness for vintage automobiles. He collected them religiously and had a full-time archivist for his garage of historical vehicles.
Victor had paid an extra terrible price for those centuries of ageless life. Even worse than normal for his kind. Somehow, living to see the dawn of the automobile almost made the whole ordeal worth it. Victor stepped out onto the street.
To the New World crowd, Victor Chirac had a reputation as a dandy. That always amused him. Among the Old World elders, he had the exact opposite reputation as a pretender pauper, a gauche reminder of his low station as a human. Victor preferred being thought of as a dandy than as a false king.
Victor might not have the sheer age and experience of his fellow elders but when a demon came to earth seeking asylum from his captors, he did not flee to the comforts of Europe and its council of hypocrites and cowards. He came to the New World and joined up with Victor's Old World style coven.
Meeting with Nergal had broken his delusions about demons and wondered if the elders were laughing behind his back at his folly. They were old enough to have known about the dangers of being in legion with a demon. No wonder they hadn't resisted when he'd left to these shores to greet him.
Victor Chirac was perfectly aware of how demons were with humans, with the lies and the secrets. He had naively believed that his status as an undead occultist would grant him a measure of respect in the old devil's eyes. He'd been gravely mistaken. Nergal treated him no more than a human slave.
Victor was a peasant of sorts living during the time of the French Revolution. At that point in history, men were standing up to tyrants like Nergal. Now, in his absolute ignorance, Victor had volunteered for the type of slavery his country had chopped off heads and stretched necks in order to end.
The chore Nergal had sent him on was the most humiliating of the bunch. Without explanation or any kind of courtesy, Nergal ordered him to stake out the Palladian Society. He did not ask. He did not request. He ordered and, seeing no other choice, he obeyed. Victor could do nothing but comply as his men lost a little respect for him.
The Palladian Society, at first blush, was a throwback to the devil worshiping cults of the Middle Ages. Except instead of virgin sacrifices, they pretty much took anyone they could offer up to their demonic patron. The Old World elders would have been delighted by their predation of the weak.
Victor had looked one of their future sacrifices in the eye as the leader of sorts gave him a guided tour of the facilities. Paul Utah was very polite for someone who traded on the blood of human victims. Etiquette was their last touchstone with humanity. Victor saw in Paul something of a kindred soul.
Victor placed his order for garlic chicken and walked into the backroom behind the kitchen. In the additional freezer rested the body of Tyrese Hilson. The demon didn't mind the cold. Like him, Nergal was beyond such things. Tyrese's eyes opened. Nergal had been resting. Now, he was awake.
"Please don't kill me, father," Nergal spoke in perfect French, speaking with a voice he had not heard in ages. Nergal smiled that cruel crooked smile. "Your whoring retch of a son Andre belongs to us. Like father, like son."
Nergal stood up and cracked his back. "I had fun drawing out of him everything he knew about you." It was the advantage his undead status afforded to him. Nergal's intimate knowledge of neighboring minds did not affect his kind. Victor was immune to that final indignity of a demon master.
"Everything he had to say about you always came back to one word." Nergal licked his lips. "Monster." Victor Chirac winced from that word. Andre still hadn't forgiven him over what he had done in order to survive all those years ago.
Shame and outrage were two things father and son had in common. "You should be ashamed of yourself. Which is funny because you actually are. I don't have to read your mind to know that much." Nergal grinned a terrible grin.
"This is crap." It was bad enough to learn that she came from a family of freaks. Suddenly, Alyssa Walker was learning that she came from a family of fascists as well. "Why? Why can't I? What's the worst that could happen?" Alyssa should have known better than to bait Mom but she was furious.
"First off, it is not crap. Second, I do not know what is the worst that could happen." Mom threw her hands up. "Nobody does. That is the whole reason not to." Alyssa had brought up the possibility of telling Erica about the most recent development in her family. Mom ordered a full media blackout.
Alyssa held up her cell phone to Mom's face. "You know what this is?" Mom sighed again. "It's called a cell phone. I talk on it. Erica will know if I'm keeping something from her. She always does. We text a lot. Things come up." Alyssa shook her head. "I can't keep something like this secret."
"Fine." Mom snatched the cell phone from her hand. "No cell phone then." Before Alyssa could argue, Mom raised her infamous finger of silence. "You will get this back as soon as you convince me that you got this secret thing under control." Mom pocketed her cell phone. "Okay?" She nodded, gritting her teeth behind closed lips. "Good. Now go to your room, young lady."
Alyssa didn't know what she had been thinking. Of course, Mom would never have signed off of her blabbing about their super-secret club. Alyssa should have just spilled to Erica Eastman and then told Mom about it later.
Why didn't she? The answer was as clear as a pimple on prom night. Deep down, somewhere dark and dreary, Alyssa Walker knew her mother was right about this. Moms had a gift for being right about all the wrong things.
Erica Eastman wasn't even really Alyssa's friend. She wasn't really her enemy either. She was that uncomfortable third category known as a frenemy. She needed her to get in with the in crowd but she had her moments of backstabbing bitchiness. Erica was a hybrid of a hurdle and a ladder.
Alyssa crashed through her door, flopped onto her bed and punched her pillow a dozen times. Alyssa was a fool to even approach Mom about this. Now she was down one cell phone, a vital artery for human contact severed by a cascading failure of inter-family diplomacy. When she got tired of beating herself up over her loss, Alyssa Walker rolled over and took a nap.
Bernard Walker had witnessed the fight Michelle had had with Alyssa. To the untrained eye, Michelle was just looking out for her daughter. Nothing out of the ordinary for a mother. Bernie knew something else was involved.
Michelle usually wasn't this quick to administer her own brand of punishment. She was a staunch believer in "Wait 'Till Dad Gets Home" when it came to disciplining the kids. Taking away her cell phone was the harshest punishment she had administered without his stamp of approval.
Bernard came up behind Michelle and wrapped his arms around her waist. It had been so long since he had felt her against him. Too long. Bernie kissed Michelle on the back of the neck. "Honey ... is there something wrong?"
Michelle Walker breathed deep as she enjoyed the rare moment of intimacy between them. "No, what could be wrong?" It wasn't so much a question as a challenge. She wanted him to guess and, being a cop, he had a few ideas.
"I don't know." Bernie shrugged. "Maybe, you know something we don't." Michelle and her mother was always the ones with the master plan. It was their idea to unite the Benandanti during the last summoning. They were the ones who tracked down the Wolf Mistress to her secret hideout in the Black Forest. Laurie Goode and her daughter were legends among the Benandanti.
If anyone knew something he might not, it was those two. "So what is it?" It wasn't so much a question as a challenge. There had been trust issues in the recent past. There was even a time when he had thought Michelle had done the unthinkable. Bernie could only hope those days were behind them now.
Michelle grinned as she kissed his fingers as they worked their way through her hair. "You know, sir, there will come a day when that boyish charm won't be able to save you." He shrugged, this time with a smile. Today was not that day.
Returning from a quick trip to the home office, Michelle laid a poster board on the island in the kitchen. It looked more like one of the children's presentation than an in-depth visual prompt for her recent investigation.
"There have been disappearances. Two girls went missing from the same part of town within twenty-four hours of each other. My mom recognizes the pattern from similar cases in ten other cities." Michelle tapped her finger on the spear symbol. "She think she knows where to find their kidnappers."
Bernie knew better than to argue with his mother-in-law even through the proxy of his wife. She might be an old witch given to flights of fancy but her instincts for hunting were sharp, mental razor blades honed and refined by years of fieldwork. Bernie unsheathed his silvered boot knife. "It looks like we have ourselves a hunt."
Nergal hovered a half-inch off the floor as Victor Chirac looked on. It was unnecessary gesture of power. He could walk just fine in the body of Tyrese Hilson. He just wanted to show off, perhaps even earn a bit of respect. It wasn't working. Nergal could tell. He settled down on the floor next to him.
Nergal had the alien expression Victor had seen on his face turned to a sheepish grin. His attempts to seem human and approachable were as terrible as his openly demonic ways. "I apologize for the thing about your son. I needed to gauge your response. To know how much you were willing to suffer for your cause." Victor scoffed at that.
"Believe it or not, you and I are not enemies." Nergal sat down next to Victor as he sulked away from the eyes of his cabal. "Do you know how you can tell?" Victor shrugged. Nergal tilted his chin in his direction. "You are not dead yet. Indeed, if you were my enemy, I'd have killed you the moment I saw you. But I need you and I am willing to make this arrangement work."
Victor sighed. He had grown physically and spiritually exhausted by this demon's endless bag of tricks. If he really cared about his well-being, he would not have visited upon him that reminder of old sins. Victor turned to Nergal. He might as well try to play his game. "For starters, why did you send me to the Palladists? What purpose did that serve?" Victor didn't except a real answer.
Nergal smiled a crooked half-smile. "You may see me as a monster but I am merely the middle child of a very large family. I do what I can to stand out. And I accomplish that by knowing what others do not." Nergal turned to meet Victor's glance. "Knowledge is power and it is power I am willing to share with you." Victor crossed his arms. He was waiting for show-and-tell.
Nergal looked ahead as some invisible target on the other side of the wall. "The Palladian Society vexes me. It is said that they are a secret society of devil worshippers. Ergo, they must show fealty to the Devil or some demon masquerading as the Father of Lies. Wouldn't you agree?" Victor nodded.
Nergal flared his nostrils. "And yet, in all my time Down Below, I have never met a demon who received a single tribute from them." Nergal anticipated Victor's objection. "I know every inhabitant of the inferno quite intimately. I was the head of the secret police before my termination." Nergal sighed. "Whatever the Palladists pray to, it is certainly not a demon."
The guard spit out a tooth and grinned at him. Bernard Walker hadn't even bothered with channeling. He was not worth the effort. A Q&A session aided by his silvered boot knife had yielded tremendous results. The latest of the victims, a Jacqueline Kell, age 24, was the latest sacrifice.
"Jackie Kell must die. It is the only way to set her free." Bernie delivered a hard chop to the guard's throat. His verdict on crazies was never to try and intellectually metabolize their nonsense. Their minds would only infect his.
Bernie had gone alone. Michelle needed rest and the kids were not ready for their first hunt. Bernie needed to do this alone. The guard was unconscious. Devil worshipper or not, he was still human and Bernie had already crossed enough lines torturing information out of him. Bernie walked down the hall.
Brandishing the silvered boot knife, Bernie took a moment to reflect on its significance. Bernie had been abandoned on a playground. Whoever left him there wrapped this knife in the blankets that had served as his very first bed. It was a sign that his parents might have been hunters and wanted to give Bernie a fighting chance against evil.
It could play with the mind sometimes wondering why people who should have loved and protected him had left him to the whims of fate. His foster parents had been nice enough but what if they had been monsters like so many others? What reasons did his parents have to subject him to such risk?
Over the years, the silvered boot knife became less a replacement guardian for the parents torn away from him by circumstances beyond their control and more of a "screw you" memento from losers trying to ease their guilt.
A tall scarecrow of a man stepped out of the shadows. His staff loosened Bernie's grip on the knife. The bespectacled man's head lingered out in front like the turtle peaking out of his shell. "It is too late. Jackie has already underwent the first half of the ceremony. She is a minute from her death."
A tiny mistake hardly noticeable to the untrained eye, the tall man gestured ever so slightly in the direction of one of the doors. Jackie Kell was behind that door about to be killed. Bernie busted open the door, channeling as much as strength as he could hold onto. Bernie watched helplessly as a sacrificial dagger came down on Jackie and rose back up covered in blood.
"It is done." Bernie turned his head to the left and saw that the dagger had penetrated the heart of a sleeping pig. The poor creature didn't even squeal as it surrendered to death. The gentleman with the salt-and-pepper beard wiped the pig's blood off on a rag. Jackie had a big smile on her face.
Jackie kneeled. Not fell. Not forced to her knees. Just kneeled. "Jacqueline Kell is no more. That life is ended. Rise, Elizabeth Summers, and embrace your new brothers and sisters." An applause arose from the crowd of onlookers as she descended the altar. Bernie didn't understand what he had just witnessed.
The man with the horn-rimmed glasses placed a hand on Bernie's right shoulder. "You were not meant to see that." The man sighed. "Alas, there is no changing the past. Best not to dwell on it. I believe you have many questions, Mr. Walker." The man extended a hand. "I am Paul Utah and I might have the answers you seek."
Paul hugged Jackie/Elizabeth. "I am proud of you, Liz."
Bernie Walker looked around at the mini detox clinic set up inside this unassuming office building. Bernie stared at the cells where the "patients" suffered the ordeal of detoxification. "You mean to tell me that you guys are the good guys." Paul Utah was chewing on a piece of smoked pork procured from the sacrificial pig. "But why? Why all the deception?"
Paul swallowed his last bite. "Bernie, may I call you Bernie?" Bernie nodded. "We are undercover. We infiltrate our fellow dark magicians. When we get wind of some great evil on the horizon, we use our skill with magic to summon you, the Benandanti, to deal with it." Bernie couldn't believe that, after centuries, he might be the first Benandanti to learn this secret. "Each time, the Benandanti fought magnificently." Bernie could sense a but coming on.
"But something has changed. We have always been the ones to summon you. But, this time, it was not us who performed the summoning and we do not know who did." Bernie felt his hand grope for his knife. Paul patted Bernie on the shoulder. "So be careful out there. Something is different now."