In the more shadowy corners of the world, frequented by angels and demons and everything in-between, Laytham Ballard is a legend. It's said he raised the dead at the age of ten, stole the Philosopher's Stone in Vegas back in 1999, and survived the bloodsucking kiss of the Mosquito Queen. Wise in the hidden ways of the night, he's also a cynical bastard who stopped thinking of himself as the good guy a long time ago.
Now a promise to a dying friend has Ballard on the trail of an escaped Serbian war criminal with friends in both high and low places--and a sinister history of blood sacrifices. Ballard is hell-bent on making Dusan Slorzack pay for his numerous atrocities, but Slorzack seems to have literally dropped off the face of the Earth, beyond the reach of his enemies, the Illuminati, and maybe even the Devil himself. To find Slorzack, Ballard must follow a winding, treacherous path that stretches from Wall Street and Washington, D.C. to backwoods hollows and truckstops, while risking what's left of his very soul . . . .
The banker was crucified on the wall of his Wall Street office, fountain pens rammed through both wrists, an Armani Jesus.The pens are Montblancs, very nice. Each one is custom-made, decorated with emeralds, sapphires, and rubies, and then hundreds of tiny diamonds just for good measure. They run for a hair under a million dollars each. They’re sturdy too, obviously. I doubt that their current function would be of much use in a marketing campaign, but still, a fun fact to know.
I left the shitty meth-lab-trailer-on-cinder-blocks I called home when I was thirteen. I remember writing the good-bye letter to my snoring, drunken mother on the back of a disconnect notice from Allegheny Power. I wrote my good-byes with a gnawed-on pencil, whittled to an uneven point by a pocketknife. I left the letter on top of a pile of past-due bills, truancy notices, and empty Marlboro cartons. No Montblancs in our clan, no sir.
Another dead end. This pattern was getting old. Every connection, every lead I had made to tracking Slorzack had dried up. To date: three strangulations, one incinerated alive while taking a shower, one exsanguinated, a “car bomb” that left no trace of the explosive device, and now, Wall Street performance art.I considered a working on the body—wake the old boy up for a bit of Q and A—but if the killers had experience in the Life they might have set traps for any would-be necromancer.
I pulled the high-backed leather chair out from behind the desk, rolled it to where I could have a decent view of the tableau, sat down, and admired the effect, the craftsmen’s work, for a moment. Every artist signs his portrait in some way.I pulled out an American Spirit, only three left in the pack, second pack today. The Zippo snapped open with a hollow, metallic clank. A hint of sulfur stung my nose as the wheel ground against my thumb and the flame kissed the tip of my coffin nail. Pa called cigarettes that. He was a Lucky Strike man. Too bad he hadn’t lived long enough for them to kill him.
The crucifixion itself had no occult symbolism that I recognized from the position of the body—hands above the head, almost crossed at the wrists but not quite. It did cause me to flash for a second to an image of an old bondage playmate of mine, the languid way she would raise her arms above her head and await the cuffs. If there was a safe word for God’s snuff play, he kept it to himself.The positioning of the body and hands didn’t indicate traditional Judeo-Christian iconography; there was none of the overtly brutal but metaphorically and mystically powerful symbolism of Teutonic or Norse rites. He wasn’t hanged upside down, for example, or missing an eye, and I saw nary a crow.
I took a long draw on the cigarette, ran a hand over my shaggy hair. I had pulled it back, tight, into a ponytail to keep it out of my way. I rubbed my eyes.The murder didn’t betray any of the subtle trademarks of Dalí Absurdist Chaos Magic, the telltale covert rendering of metaphysical, four-dimensional, transcendent hypercubism that old Salvador had extrapolated in his Anti-Matter Manifesto. A good read, by the way. Even if you didn’t care for his art, you had to admit Dalí was a top-notch psychosocial alchemist.
Signs of Satanism? Please. So last millennium. Go listen to Gorgoroth and sacrifice a puppy, why don’t you.No, no hocus-pocus. This was just someone killing a man in a very nasty way. More likely two or more killers, given the strength and flexibility needed to wrestle him up there, pin him, and hold him till the blood loss did its work. I was suddenly taken by the beginning of a very bad joke: How many faceless conspiratorial hit men does it take to crucify a banker?
This wasn’t a ritual or an execution. This was a message. For me. Stop searching. Back off.Dark streams flowed from the dead man’s wrists, staining the pens’ jeweled lengths, ending in swollen, pregnant drops that fell down into his eight-hundred-dollar Orlando Pita haircut, saturating his hairline and trickling across his pale, downturned face. The blood split and fractured into a wet black web, finally meeting again to pool at his perfect chin and tumble down, splashing dark stains on the expensive wool carpet. The lines across his face reminded me of Alice Cooper’s makeup after a long, hot show.
I wrestled a small leather couch close enough to stand on it and reach the banker’s body. I braced one boot against the wall and pulled the Montblancs free with a lot of grunting and effort. They were sturdy and had been sunk deep through skin, bone, paneling, and plaster.The body fell, bounced off the couch, and landed with a muted squish into the dark, wet stain on the carpet that had gathered below him like a lengthening shadow.
I wiped the blood off of the pens with a monogrammed silk handkerchief I found in his pocket and slipped them into my coat. He wouldn’t need them.I hopped down, leaned over the body, and tried to imagine the killers, the struggle. It wasn’t as hard for me as it might have been for most and, unfortunately, most of my insights were through the eyes of the killers, not the victim. I kept thinking how I would have killed this man, how I would have left him as an example to be found. This was far from my first visit with violence and death.
Sane, healthy, normal people grew up in fucking Disneyland when it comes to evil and the beings capable of inflicting it. Monsters, human and otherwise, roam this world, I assure you. It would be nice to blame dark powers and inhuman fiends for most of the troubles in this life, but sadly, we can’t. There is more human evil out there than inhuman. Our world chokes on it, drowns in it, but some of us have learned to swim.Hitler was the Henry Ford of the infernal. He developed a production line, a process, to make horrible, soulless acts more cost-effective and efficient while removing accountability and guilt for his “workforce.” He knew the importance of branding, sound-bite speeches, props, and jingles. He also knew, like any good marketer, the importance of images, symbolism, and meme, and he stole from only the best., Like Ford, he developed a process other sick, sad little psychopaths could duplicate and improve on across time and space. A process of atrocity that was as clean as the faces and reputations of the American industrialists who did business with Hitler up until the war and even after it had begun. No dirty fingernails for the boys in the home office, no hands-on work for them.
Somewhere in the process, someone has to get dirty hands, though. Someone has to strap on the IED, feed the starving women and children into the ovens, S drops the bomb or pulls the trigger; someone slaughters the schoolchildren. In my experience, the best of these “men of action” are weak-willed sheep. The worst … well, they worst enjoy their work. Some get off on it.Evil is out there, right now, today, maybe watching your kids play too intently at the next table in that restaurant with the overpriced pizza and the giant rat for a mascot. Fun fact: Did you know that restaurant was founded and dedicated as a temple and feast hall to Karni Mata, the bride to the rat god, Mushika. It’s true. Those little gold tokens your A-B honor roll students are clamoring for are sacrificial blood coins feeding the god of plagues and vermin, and trust me, you don’t even want to know why they got rid of the ball pits.
It’s all out there—dirty nails, nails caked with graveyard dirt and the coagulated blood of infants.I know these monsters, I have fought them, and if am to be honest with you and myself, more often than not I have been the monster.
The man I was hunting had nails that were very dirty indeed, and I had promised Boj I’d find Dusan Slorzack and make sure he paid his account in full. But now, a dead banker and another dead end.:
I found my friend, Branko Bojich in a decaying hospice in Brooklyn that smelled of shit and Vicks VapoRub.“You look like hell,” I said, standing in the doorway of his tiny cell-like room.
“I’m dying from AIDS, asshole,” he said with a weak grin. “What’s your excuse?”I tossed him a small gift-wrapped package. “I got your call. How are you, Boj?”
“Dying, Laytham. Just dying, that’s all. No big thing,” he said, putting the gift aside. “How’s my favorite West Virginia cracker doing?”“Fair to middlin’, as they say at the tractor pull. Just got back from Egypt last night. It’s good to see you, even like this, man.”
“Thanks, thanks for coming. I need to ask you to do something for me. It’s going to be messy, though. But I figure you…”“Yeah, I owe you for messy,” I said. “What?”
“I want you to find the man who killed me, Laytham,” Boj said.I’m looking right at him, Boj. You put that spike in your arm, no one else.”
He squinted into the afternoon sunlight that squeezed through filthy blinds. His eyes were still, and dark as opals, but his dusky skin was now washed-out and blotchy. He talked to the sunbeams, not to me.“I told you I was married before I came to America, right?” he said.
“Yeah.”“She died in čelebići, in Bosnia, back in ’92,” he said. “She was raped, every day for months, tortured. They nailed…” He swallowed hard and I saw him trying to beat down the vision. He let himself fail. “They nailed an SDA badge to her forehead and then kicked her to death.”
“SDA?” I asked.“It’s the initials of one of the Muslim political parties over there. The stupid bastards didn’t even care how little Mita thought of politics. She believed everyone was good at heart … look what that got her.”
He looked back to me with dry eyes, dead eyes. Whatever lived behind those dark wells had preceded Boj out of this world; the rest of him was just waiting to catch up.“I was here in the States handling my family’s business. I was planning to bring her over.”
Boj’s family’s business was called “import-export” in polite circles. The cops called them the biggest heroin production and distribution network in Eastern Europe. When I met him, he was handling everything for them from L.A. through flyover country—Middle America. I saw him at war with the Russians, the Triads. He was the Alexander of the street—bloody, raging, glorious, and terrible. Now he was a skeleton stretched over gray skin, one good bout of flu away from Hell.“Stupid bastards,” he muttered. “I found out the name of the chief stupid bastard just a few years ago. It took the last of my resources. Most of my ‘friends’ have abandoned me, and even my enemies pity me and wait for me to die like a rabid dog. But I knew you would come, Laytham. I know you. I want you to find him. I want you to see he gets what he deserves.”
“Why the fuck me, Boj? I’m no cop, I’m not an enforcer, a leg breaker. I know some wise guys who’ll do him for…”“Because he’s into the Life, Laytham, the Art, the Dance, bajanje—whatever the fuck you call it, just like you and Harel and all those other weirdoes we used to hang out with. I think he used it to escape from the law, even the street’s law.”
Down the hallway there were echoing shouts in Spanish. Someone named Tuni needed to mop up Mr. McGowan’s piss from all over the break room. I sighed.“This chief stupid bastard have a name? We may have bumped into each other at one of the weirdo conventions.”
“Slorzack,” he said. “Dusan Slorzack. He was indicted for war crimes back in ’96, but he hasn’t surfaced anywhere since then. He seems to have found a back door to slip away from everyone.”“That was awhile back, man. You sure he hasn’t just died somewhere?”
Boj said nothing. His face was sunken, a skull with tatters of skin and bone pulled over it, a constellation of sores marking his face.“No,” he finally said. “Bastards like me don’t get that lucky. My karma is fucked. He’s out there laughing and drinking and fucking and Mita is only a memory in my skull, and when I’m gone, she’s gone too, like she never was, and that is the greatest crime I think I have ever known. I’d do it myself if I could, Laytham. I can’t.”
I scratched my head and sighed. Boj waited patiently with the ghost of his dead wife for me to mull it over. Slorzack. The name meant nothing to me. A long-cold trail. My enthusiasm must have been shining out of my face.“You owe me blood, redneck,” he finally said when he felt me trying to pull away from it.
“Yeah,” I said, “I reckon I do. Okay, I’ll look into it.”“Good,” he said, and I saw his whole body relax. He smiled. His teeth were rotting, and his gums were gray and recessed, but it made me feel good to see him smile, all the same.
“Thanks,” he said.“I got to go. I’ll keep in touch,” I said.
“Yeah. What the fuck is this, Laytham?” he asked.
He unwrapped his present. His eyes widened as he recognized the worn, battered leather case. He unzipped it and smiled again. Everything was like he had left it. The hypodermic, the needles, even the cooking spoon, caked and blackened. The rubber hose uncoiled like a tan viper, eager to wrap around his arm and sink its fangs into his vein. A small red balloon filled with poisonous rapture also fell out, tied tight to keep its contents from spilling.“I figured what the hell, right?” I said.
“Yeah,” Boj said, arraying his works before him, looking at the balloon like a groom looks at a bride on their honeymoon. “What the hell.”I knelt over the dead banker’s dumb face frozen in agony and terror. The dead always look fake, like bad wax mannequins or grotesque rubber sex dolls, but the death smells were there to remind you it wasn’t a special effect. Sweat, shit, piss, blood, all stuffed up my nostrils to assure me it was as real as it gets.
His eyes reminded me of Granny’s. All dead eyes did. I half expected him to blink, for those cold, empty windows to shift, focus past the gathering cataract clouds, and regard me from a sitting room in Hell.They didn’t. I started to breathe again and felt the cool sheen of sweat wet the back of my shirt. I closed the dead man’s eyes, more out of a desire for reprieve from their regard than anything approximating respect or human kindness. My hands shook a little. I needed a drink.
A man like this would be missed—and soon. He had been here all night, and now, in the cold gray light of dawn, his office manager, or one of his racquetball buddies, or his steroid dealer would walk in and find him. I needed to be gone by then.I tossed the room, looking for anything that might put me back on the frozen trail of Slorzack. My short-lived friend, the car bomb guy, had left a few legal pads in his desk drawer that hadn’t ended up blown to hell. They led me here. Slorzack had paid a lot of money for an introduction to this man—Berman, James Berman. Why?
I skipped searching the plundered desk and the computer with its blue screen of death. The people who killed the banker had done a professional job of tumbling the place. They had found whatever it was they were looking for, if indeed they were looking for anything at all. Tossing the room might have just been a ploy to divert attention from the murder. Unlike the crap you see in the movies, nobody methodically tears up a room and then misses the McGuffin in the false-bottom chest. It just ain’t so. The only hope I had was to pick through the scraps. Look for the unseen.I closed my eyes, steadied my hands, and slowed my breathing and my heartbeat. I opened the lenses of energy that resided along the bone staircase of my spine. I exhaled and opened my eyes.
I started with the primary reason for the killer’s visit: Berman himself. If they just wanted to toss the place, they could have done that when he wasn’t here. No, they came to do this to him. Ransacking the office was either a secondary concern or a ruse. I examined his body. Berman was a very tan man. He had good hair and good teeth and was tall and had a body that was a testament to many hours worshiping at the temples of the racquet club and spa. He had a class ring—a big squat, ugly thing designed to announce to the world his pedigree. On his left hand was a simple gold band and a Masonic ring, gold with a ruby glaring up at me in the harsh office light. A Mason. He was a little more interesting now.A sudden insight, a flare of intuition, made me open his shirt, ripping the buttons off the broadcloth and pushing his tie aside, so that it now clutched his bare neck more like a hangman’s noose than a banker’s badge of office. His chest was smooth, hairless. Around his neck, on a thin, expensive silver chain, were two slender cylindrical handcuff keys on a simple wire loop of steel.
I touched the keys and felt the swell of tantric power roar through my mind and down in my Swadhisthana chakra. The flicker of the candles, the spatter of hot wax, the feel of warm leather in my hand, the smell of blood and sex, the scream of pain and desire, echoing. This was the first real part of this man I had come across here. These keys were soaked in secret power, hidden desire, and I could track that.
But I felt a familiar pressure squeeze between my brows as my Ajna chakra opened its petals wider. Something else.I took the chain and the keys, dropped them in my pocket. I reached for the mug of overpriced, and now cold, coffee on his desk and dipped a Montblanc pen into it. I stirred counterclockwise as I incantated. “Aperio latito conspici … iam.”
I took the pen out of the mug and moved it across his still chest, left to right then right to left, finishing the charm by circling his chest widdershins and touching the tip of my makeshift wand to the spot where his cool, still heart was.This was a risk. If the killers had planned on me using the Art to search, I could get a nasty surprise, but this was a very unobtrusive bit of magic. A trap would have to have a hair-trigger to activate against this.
The skin wavered like asphalt on a hot day and the tattoo appeared, spread across the dead man’s chest. Emerald ink, racing, arcing, forming symbols, finishing in the pattern of the pyramid with the All-Seeing Eye boring into me as it hovered at the apex amid a halo of brilliant radiating light rays.Illuminating.
“Shit,” I said, with more than my usual amount of West Virginian twang. I said it out loud to no one but the dead man and me, a soon-to-be dead man.“You’re with the fucking Illuminati.”
Copyright © 2015 by Rod Belcher
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
R. S. Belcher
BUY THE BOOK
Available Formats and Book Details
R. S. Belcher
- Tor Books
- August 2015