Excerpt of Die and Stay Dead by Nicholas Kaufmann © 2014
There was nothing in the world like New York City at night. After the last of the sunlight faded and the sky turned black, there were parts of the city that remained as bright as day, shielded from the dark by neon signs and sodium streetlights, by the twinkling galaxies of headlights snaking across the bridge spans and the illuminated pinnacles of skyscrapers like burning spears. All four hundred and sixty-nine square miles of the city raged with so much light that at times the night was no more than perpetual dusk. Yet no matter how brightly the city burned, there were secret places where darkness took root and flourished. Hidden, dark spots where New Yorkers never strayed, steered away by the whispers of some ancient and forgotten instinct. It was on one of those beautiful nights, in one of those secret places, that I was getting the crap beaten out of me by an infected magician named Biddy.
Joggers had been disappearing from Central Park at night, all of them women, and all of them vanishing from the same area: the dark, wooded, winding paths known as the Ramble. No clues had been left behind and no bodies had been found. The police and the newspapers thought there was a serial killer at work--"Invasion of the Hottie Snatcher!" shouted one New York Post headline--but we suspected something different was happening, something the police weren't equipped to handle. So that night, after the police patrol left the area, we sent Bethany out into the Ramble alone as bait. Isaac, Philip, and I hid at various points nearby, waiting. I watched Bethany through lightweight, high-definition binoculars whose special lenses boosted light transmission for nighttime use. They made her glow and look fuzzy around the edges, like a ghost haunting the park. It wasn't long before Biddy made his move, snatching Bethany up and dragging her into the woods. Isaac and Philip burst from their hiding spots and ran after him. I tucked the binoculars into my trench coat pocket and started running, but like an idiot I tripped one of Biddy's booby-traps. A rope snare caught me by the ankle and hoisted me upside-down into a tree. By the time I got myself loose and followed the trail of scuffed footprints and trampled plants to a camouflaged trapdoor at the base of the bronze Alice in Wonderland statue, I found myself locked out of Biddy's underground lair with the others already inside. It took me another ten minutes to break my way in. Frankly, the rescue part of our plan could have gone better.
Reeling from Biddy's punches, I stumbled backward, careful to stay away from the edge of the natural stone bridge we stood on. Below us, a wide pit extended farther down than I could see, a bottomless hole in the earth. The sides of the bridge had been lined with rows of black candles that burned with an eerie red flame. Everything about it screamed ritual to me. But what ritual? What the hell was Biddy doing down here?
I risked a quick glance at Bethany. She was dangling from a long, retractable metal contraption that held her over the yawning black pit, her wrists chained together over her head. Wet, slimy sounds echoed up from below, as if something were moving down there. Suddenly I had a pretty good idea what happened to the missing women. Bethany struggled to free herself, twisting her diminutive, five-foot frame and pinwheeling her legs under her as she strained for any kind of leverage. But there was nothing beneath her, just a straight fall of untold hundreds of feet, all the way down to whatever was making those slithery noises.
"Trent!" she shouted. "Stop messing around and get me down from here!"
"What do you think I'm trying to do?" I shouted back. I hated when she got like this. Only Bethany Savory could micromanage her own rescue.
She nodded at the control panel of levers and knobs at the base of the retractable contraption. "Just get over there and press the damn button that gets me down from here!"
I turned back to Biddy and wiped blood from my lip. "Do yourself a favor. Let her go and I'll go easy on you."
Biddy laughed crazily. Crazy enough to remind me that he wasn't just bad, he was infected, which meant he was insane enough to see this through. He fully intended to feed Bethany to whatever was down there, just as he'd fed a dozen other women to it over the past few weeks. He would never let her go.
The infection had given Biddy's skin a rough, stonelike quality and a tumorous, misshapen head. At least he still looked somewhat human. I'd seen the infection do worse to people. Unfortunately, his fist felt as stony as it looked. As he landed another blow, it was like being punched by a boulder.
He smirked. He had good reason to. He was stronger than me, and I was weaponless. The grip of my chrome-plated Bersa semiautomatic pistol poked out of the waist of Biddy's pants. Though something told me that even if I had the gun, bullets wouldn't pierce that rocklike skin of his. It wouldn't be the first time I'd gone up against someone bullets couldn't harm, but I always felt better about the odds when I had the gun in my hand. No wonder Bethany had called it my totem.
"There must be some mistake," Biddy sneered, his voice as deep and hollow as the pit below us. "I thought you were the great and mighty Immortal Storm. I expected a challenge, at least." When he spoke, his lopsided mouth moved like a mudfish's.
"You're one to talk about funny names, Biddy," I said, spitting more blood onto the ground.
The Immortal Storm. I hated that name. It had been bestowed on me by the gargoyles as an honorary title after I freed them from their long history of slavery. I'd hoped to keep it private, but word had spread faster than I expected. Who knew gargoyles were such gossips? But it wasn't just modesty that made me uncomfortable with the title. The Immortal Storm was also a prophecy--a bad one, real end of the world stuff--and I didn't like being associated with that.
"My god and master, Mab-Akarr, will have His feast tonight, as He does every night," Biddy went on. "You cannot stop this, Immortal Storm. He craves flesh, and as His faithful servant, I willingly supply it."
"Tell me something, Biddy. Does Mab-Akarr insist on only eating women, or was that your idea?" He glared at me. "I thought so. What happened, you get rejected in high school too many times?"
Biddy sneered and feinted throwing another punch. I flinched. He laughed.
"Fool. Who are you to question the rites of Mab-Akarr? He does not protect you. He protects me." He thumped one stony hand on his chest for emphasis.
I looked up at him. "Protects you? You live under Central Park and kidnap women to throw in a pit. You're the one people need protection from."
He shook his head like he pitied my ignorance. "You do not feel it, do you? It is everywhere around you. It is in the air itself. Something dark and terrible is coming. Something no one can escape. No one but me. Mab-Akarr will protect me from it, as long as I keep Him fed."
Biddy strode toward the control panel, turning his back to me. I leapt to tackle him, but he was surprisingly fast. He spun and brought up one arm. His palm burst with a seething light, and a blast of something cold and painful caught me by surprise. I couldn't move. Every part of my body raged with agony. I gritted my teeth and bit back a scream.
Stupid of me. I should have expected a spell. Biddy was infected--of course he was carrying magic inside him.
He giggled insanely and inched closer. "Kneel."
"Go fuck yourself," I growled through the pain. You can take the ex-thief out of Brooklyn, but you can't take the Brooklyn out of the ex-thief.
"Kneel," Biddy repeated, louder.
The agony of the spell intensified. Magic. Sometimes I hated it. Okay, most of the time. I cried out and fell to my knees. I didn't mean to. I didn't want to give the bastard the satisfaction, but I didn't have a choice. The pain was too much.
"Trent!" Bethany yelled. Metal jangled loudly as she swung back and forth on the chain, struggling to get her legs high enough to wrap them around the retractable arm. But she was too small. Her legs wouldn't reach.
Biddy's spell dissipated. The pain subsided, albeit maddeningly slowly. Biddy picked up his sword from where he'd dropped it on the stone bridge. He loomed over me, putting the tip of the blade to my neck. It felt cold and sharp against my throat.
"The Immortal Storm," he scoffed. "They should have called you the Sniveling Worm instead."
I moved my fingers desperately along the ground, grasping for anything I could use as a weapon. All I got was a handful of loose dirt and pebbles. It would have to do. I tossed it in Biddy's face. He snarled and backed away, protecting his eyes with his free hand. I jumped to my feet, but Biddy recovered faster than I thought he would. He drove the sword deep into my stomach.
His lopsided mudfish mouth curled in a sneer. "Now die."
Hot blood spilled out of me, coursing down my shirt, my pants. I was dying, and I knew what that meant. With my last ounce of strength I grabbed Biddy's lapels, pulled him close, and didn't let go. A cold emptiness blossomed inside me, and I felt the dizzying sensation of falling even though I was still on my feet. The edges of my vision turned gray, then black, and everything went dark very quickly.
The last thing I heard before I died was Bethany's voice saying, "You shouldn't have done that, Biddy."