Blood & Ink: Chapter 1

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     Shoveling dirt in the darkness, he found himself oddly happy. He found himself at peace. As he worked, a tune made its way to his lips, one that he knew all too well. With each scoop of dirt he bound himself, in a way, to her. The stark black of the soil caked his hands and clothes, lodging beneath his fingernails like a rabbit in its burrow. His skin was freezing, the air frigid in the night, the girl groaning on the ground.
     Does she dream, I wonder?
He paused in the middle of his labors, the song leaving him, and examined her features. Her nostrils, coated in the dull brown of clotted blood, wheezed and whistled with each ragged breath. A soft moan issued from her pouting lips, but her expression betrayed no discomfort.
     Her dreams are peaceful it seems.
     He smiled to himself before gripping his shovel once again, pushing her limp body into the pit before him. He heard the wet thud of flesh slapping against the rough earth beneath.
     I’d hate to wake her during such a pleasant dream.
     He concerned himself with the mound of turned earth next to him. He had to bury her, quick, working methodically, the dirt falling upon the girl one shovelful at a time, mechanical in its pacing. A soft whisper caresses his ears from below even as the dirt falls upon her frame.
     A single word. Her voice, pitiful. He sighs, grasping the shovel with both hands he upends another portion of dirt upon her and, without a word, brings it down upon her. He feels bone give beneath his blow, sees the flesh part at the edge of his spade, and the rich smell of blood rises in the cold night air. It is an intoxicating aroma, one which would drive him from reason if he allowed it to, but reason reins in instinct.
     Not now.
He kneels down beside the shallow trench and puts a hand to her cheek, his fingers tracing the line of her jaw down to her delicate chin and up to her lips in an eternal pout. She doesn’t react. He laughs, a soft chuckle filling the clearing.
     If no one will laugh, I will.
     Blood trickles down her forehead, running between his fingers, mingling with the dirt and snow, warming him with her ebbing life. He relishes the feeling. It makes him feel… real. He closes his eyes.
     I dream too, you know.
     The warmth seems to flee as soon as it came, vanishing with the coming of his thought. He looks down to see specks of white melting to nothingness in the warmth of the sanguine pool that surrounds her head.
     It’s snowing again.
     He looks up to the sky, the stars hiding themselves beneath their shrouds, but the moon bears witness to his deeds, like a terrified child peeking out from under the covers at the monster he fears lurks under his bed. Standing, he pulls himself up and out of the pit, dusting dirt and snow from his pant legs.
     There’ll be trouble if I come home at sunrise again.
     Tugging the shovel free from the mound of dirt he set to work again, whistling all the while.

     Jack sat slumped in the train’s wooden seat, a copy of the Paradpolis Prophet draped over his face like a makeshift blindfold to shut the cruel light of morning from his bloodshot eyes. Its thin effectiveness left something to be desired. Reaching up, he grabbed the paper from its perch. His head pounded in response to the light that flooded his sight. Blinking, the world swam into focus, his sight settling on the headline splayed across the top right column of the front page. “Crown Street Killer Strikes Again!” Jack let out a sigh.
     “Guess I wouldn’t be headed out this way if it wasn’t for this guy,” he said to an empty train car, and let his eyes flit over the article, picking up bits and pieces here and there. The murders seemingly indiscriminate in their victims, the bodies eviscerated in a uniquely grotesque fashion. This makes lucky number seven. Seven victims. It was almost unthinkable. Jack returned his attentions to the article in the hope that there might be something more, but it descended into standard police propaganda, the sort that encouraged a healthy sense of paranoia in the populace.
     By now, Jack figured they were overdosing on the stuff. At this rate, every Joe and Jane is gonna be callin’ the police on their neighbor if they walk their dog a little too late at night. He caught the name of the lead investigator, one Detective Ness, and instantly conjured the image of his old CO, a man with iron in his eyes as well as his spine. The man had called him three days ago. It was the first time Jack had heard from him since he’d left the army.
     Jack had a room in the Red Lantern District above a brothel. The brothel belonged to an old acquaintance of his, Madame Noir, who owed him a favor or two thanks to some work he did in when he was first getting his feet wet as a P.I.M.S. Before he knew it, he wasn’t wading through the shallows, but drowning in it. The Madame kept things quiet, for the most part, discretion being a watchword in her line of work. That is, until Ness had shown up for a visit. That’s when this whole mess started.
     “Jack, you look terrible,” Ness said. He always was the blunt sort. Jack let out a bitter laugh as he peered at him from above the chained lock of the cracked apartment door.
     “You ain’t exactly first prize yourself, Lieutenant,” said Jack. “Though, I still think I might grab second if it came down to it. You? Fourth at best.”
     “A real comedian, as ever,” Ness said, annoyance in his tone. “How’s the arm?”
     The question was innocent enough to any errant ears, but Jack felt a little ball of rage knot in his stomach, even as white-hot pain raced through the veins in his left arm. He bit down on the string of remarks bubbling into his mind before schooling his features back into the placidity of a man suffering a raging hangover.
     “Now who’s telling jokes, LT?”
     “I hope your mind is still as sharp as your tongue.” Ness raised an eyebrow, making a questioning gesture as if asking to come in. Jack shut the door before undoing the chain, as well as several other locks that adorned its frame, and eased the door open. In truth, these were the most words Jack had exchanged with another mortal being in over a week. It was the most mentally aware Jack had been for some time, his daily routine primarily consisting of betting, drinking, and trying in vain to drum up more work for himself.
     “So, Ness, what has you darkening my doorstep on this wonderfully dreary day?” Jack said Jack. He padded across the bare wooden floor to the small table in the corner, its surface littered with discarded liquor bottles and old betting slips. In response, Ness merely produced a rolled-up newspaper from inside his trenchcoat and whapped Jack on the forehead, eliciting an irritated hiss. He dropped the paper, open, on the table, causing bottles to clatter to the surface and betting slips to whip up into the air in a facsimile of a snowstorm.
     “What the Burning Hells was that for?” Jack said. His gaze dropped to the unfurled paper on the desk. “And what’s all this?”
     “Where have you been the past few weeks, Jack?” Ness said. His eyes narrowed, the look he gave the new blood in the division when he had them lined up for parade.
     “I’ve been… busy,” Jack said. He slumped into an empty seat at the table, the one with one of its legs propped up on a spare penny dreadful he had bought during a case to hide behind.
     “Mmm, I’m sure.” Ness said. His face said he already had an answer of his own. “Anyway, just because you quit the force, doesn’t mean the scumbags of this city stopped doing whatever they want. On top of that, I’ve been short-handed lately…” Ness shook his head, banishing his own less pressing concerns from his mind for the moment. “But this case tops anything that’s landed on my desk in the last five years, easily.”
     “That’s quite a claim coming from you.”
     “Yeah, well, five people being butchered in less than three weeks tends to elicit such a claim.”
     Jack leaned forward in his chair. “You shitting me, LT?”
     “Not my kind of joke, Jack.”
      Ness talked as he walked, pacing around the cramped confines of Jack’s office and apartment, examining the rather unusual collection that’d he’d managed to accumulate over the years.
     “The corpses of the victims were discovered in… abnormal states to say the least. Never seen anything like this… not even stuff the savages pulled on the western front.”
     “Gods.” Jack picked up each of the bottles on the table, shaking them and listening for the tell-tale swish of liquid within each, a flicker of disappointment crossing his face with every instance of silence. “Looks like the higher-ups are running you ragged.”
     “Haven’t had a full night’s sleep in two weeks now.” Ness gave a weary shrug, a sign of resignation to the state of things.
     “So, this why you came here?” Jack said. He stabbed a finger at the front page of the paper laying on his desk, as he peered into the neck of a bottle of what he believed was the last remaining bit of whiskey in his office.
     “No, actually, I have a favor to ask of you.”
     Jack straightened up in his chair. “Calling in something, LT?”
     “No, no, nothing like that,” Ness said. He waved a dismissive hand, but the attempt did nothing to allay the fear Jack felt rising in the pit of his stomach.
     “Alright… but—“
     “Don’t worry, Jack. The department will compensate you. Three times the usual rate if things go well, I just need this thing put to bed.”
     Jack couldn’t see anything outwardly wrong, and he had no reason to doubt Ness’s word. The two men had gone through Hell on earth during the war, and Jack still owed him for a few things, even if he wasn’t calling in those favors just yet. And Ness had helped him get on his feet as a P.I.M.S. after he quit the force. But, Jack wouldn’t be much of a P.I.M.S. if he only looked at things as they appeared. The “P.I” did stand for “Private Investigator” after all. The Monster Squad came after, if things got hairy. Literally, sometimes.
     He needed to get out of the office, and this was an honest job with guaranteed compensation at the end of it, not some paranoid husband thinking his missus was seeing another man. He just had… well, a bad feeling is all. The promise of triple the normal rate, had raised his suspicions as well. Not to mention the dull throb in his left arm at the shoulder… a little reminder of the cost of not heeding his instincts.
     “Fine, fine. I’ll take this job you got for me. But, let me ask a couple things first.” Jack said.
     “Sure, shoot.”
     “First, why me?”
     Ness sighed and walked to the middle of the room, his gaze tracing the various newspaper clippings pinned to the wall, occasionally broken up by a proper and framed pictograph hanging. “Because, you’re someone I can trust implicitly to get this job done, Jack.”
     “Because of what we used to do, LT?”
     “Yes, Jack, exactly.” Ness turned around. “My bosses know… part of what I used to do. Which means when a friend of theirs comes asking for discreet assistance in a personal matter, my name came to mind.”
     “And since you’re too busy with official department business to go off on some errand for a couple of desk jockeys,” Jack said, “my name came to mind.”
     Ness walked back over to Jack who was nursing the almost empty bottle as he sat at the kitchen table.
     “Jack, I need a Hellhound on this one.” His words were even, devoid of the weariness he had displayed earlier. There he is. Ness placed his hands on the table and leaned in, staring dead in the eye. “I need the Heartbreaker.”
     Jack straightened up in his chair, shifting with unease at the mention of the name. “Never thought I’d hear you use that nickname, Ness.” He met the man’s gaze, a spark of anger igniting in his eyes.
     “Well, if the shoe fits…”
     “If the shoe fits, it better be steel-toed because I’m about to kick someone’s teeth in if they use that damn name agai—”
      Jack, tightened his grip on the bottle and felt it shatter in his hand, the tinkle of errant shards as they clattered to the wooden floor filling the room, neither flinching. It was Jack who relented first. “Tch. Fine, LT, I’m on it.”
     Ness straightened up. “Good, glad to hear it. I need someone I can trust on this one.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Jack looked down at the shattered remains of the bottle in his left hand, the shard simply falling the ground, the ruddy crimson flesh of the palm not even scratched. Jack eyed it for a second, a dozen different memories flitted through his mind before he looked back to Ness.
     “You had another question, though,” Ness said.
     “Yeah, it’s about these murders. You said the corpses were found in an ‘abnormal’ state. What exactly are you talking about here?”
     “Intuition acting up, Jack?”
     “More like my professional curiosity. I got no interest in joining the force.”
     “Heh, shame. We’re short on detectives, good or bad. Having one that’s competent and I know I can trust would be a real benefit for me.”
     “Sorry to disappoint you, Ness. You not I can’t go back after—“
      Ness held up his hands. I know, I know. Just venting a little frustration on my end.” He reached up and pulled the brim of his rain-spattered brown fedora down over his eyes. “It ain’t exactly a pleasant topic to discuss, though.”
      “I’m a big boy, Ness. I can handle it.”
     “Alright, alright.” Ness was pacing again, this time in a line instead of the circular root around Jack’s office. He did it at briefings a lot back in their army days, Jack recalled, man could probably dig a trench by pacing alone if you gave him an idea to chew on for a while.
     Some people never change.
     “First off, it’s just like every rag in the city has reported: the corpses were dismembered beyond the point of recognition in most cases. Their fingertips were cut off and their eyes gouged out, the wounds indicating some sort of sharp instrument being used. The wounds run deep enough to nearly reach the brain.”
     “Nasty work,” Jack said.
     “Not even close to the worse part. The blood in the wounds showed signs of clotting.”
     “What? Then that means—“
     “Yeah, this bastard tortured em’ to death.”
     Jack leaned back in his chair.
     “Cause of death was determined to be blood loss as a result of hemorrhaging. This perp didn’t intend to kill’em. Not initially, at least. He was merciless, persistent, and methodical.” Ness stopped in front of a headdress made of dozens of feathers from a number of different animals, some magical and some mundane, all arranged in a spectacular pattern that resembled a mane that you might see on some big cat. It was a piece that was equal parts majesty and terror to those who might behold it. Jack had displayed it alongside a box of medals and ribbons from his days in the Hellhounds. Ness narrowed his eyes.
     Yeah, I bet you recognize that.
     “We’re dealing with a real psycho here,” Ness said.
     Jack remained silent.
    “That’d normally be enough to separate these cases from the rest of the pack.”
    “There’s more?”
     “Yeah…” Ness leaned forward on the desk, looking at Jack beneath shaded brows. “Look, this doesn’t leave this room for now, alright?”
     “Of course.”
     “We were instructed by the brass to keep this under wraps for now, but I know that sooner or later the public’s gonna find out and when that happens—“
     “What is it, Ness?”
      Ness leaned forward over the table toward Jack and dropped his voice to no more than a whisper. “There was extensive… damage to the bodies. Specifically to the lower abdominal region, and the wounds we found there were… distinct.”
     “Distinct how, Ness?”
     Ness sighed. “The boys in forensics say it’s as though they were… torn apart by a sharp set of teeth.”

     The train car jostled, the sudden motion tearing Jack from his reverie. He reached up and rubbed his eyes. It had been three days since his meeting with Ness, and this psycho had taken a new victim in the time since leaving the city. From what Jack had managed to glean from the article, it seemed Ness’ hunch was correct, the new corpse featured the distinctive wounds reported on the other victims, a portion of the lower abdomen missing with bite marks surrounding the wounds there.
     Which means this bastard is cutting em’ up nice and slow before sinking his teeth into em’.
     Jack suppressed a shudder. He had seen some terrible things during the war… done some terrible things too. But this… it was the sort of thing you heard whispered around the cookfires in a camp right before a battle. Something they thought the savages in the West might do, or some monster from the Old World. The latter thought persisted in his mind. Maybe the police are looking at this the wrong way… He made a note to ask Ness when he returned. The press had been getting on the police, accusing them of putting their image ahead of the safety of the public, that the initial response to the killings was bungled and that information is being released at too slow a rate, and some is being kept from the public entirely. Truth is, they were only making doing their job that much more difficult. Jack leaned back in his seat.
      “Well, nothing I can do about it right now,” he said aloud, his voice filling the silence of the train car. Shaking his head, clearing the thoughts alighting on the edge of his mind, he reached underneath his seat and produced a worn wooden box, its lacquer scratched in places, and bearing a brass placard on the lid. Jack Valentine, 66th Mechanized Cavalry, it read.
      Unhooking the latch, he opened the lid, revealing a bundle of documents, rolled up tight upon itself and bound with a bit of string alongside a worn, but well-cared for, pistol. Loaded, of course.
     Can’t be too careful these days, after all.
      Reaching his left hand inside the case, past the weapon, he used the tip of his clawed hand to clip the string, the papers falling open almost in relief. Jack picked them up, eyes darting across the pages. Ness’ little job. A missing person’s case of all things, and outside of the city no less. The person who had requested an investigation had pulled a few strings back at the department. Friends of friends, favor for a favor sort of things. Jack knew all too well the sort of cascade that had occurred in order to get him on this train.
     When Jack had first been handed the bundle at the train station, Ness had said that once he had taken a look at the case, he would take a “personal interest.” Jack quickly understood why. A missing daughter. Hell. He always had a soft spot for these sorts of things. He cursed himself for being weak, and Ness for using that to his advantage.
     The document itself was none too helpful, providing only the most basic of information on the case. Details will have to come from the client in question. Great. Dealing with clients was one thing, kissing the ass of some bastard who had enough pull with the police department to turn the heat up on Ness’ bosses was another. Jack wasn’t dumb either, this was the sort of report you put together when you didn’t want to risk certain details getting out. The whole thing stank, and here he was about to step into this shit up to the ankle. Jack chuckled to himself. I really am an idiot. He smiled. Well, at least I don’t have to deal with what Ness has to right now.
     Jack noticed that the train had begun to slow, the swaying of the cars lessening as the frosted forests and snow covered hills began to give way to roads and houses, before the train station finally came into view. Replacing the documents within the box and snapping the brass latch shut with an audible click, Jack tucked it into the pocket of his long coat, before shrugging it on and tugging down the brim of his fedora.
     The breaks of the train hisses with protest and the train finally came to a stop in the station. Jack worked his way to the front of the car, giving a nod to the conductor as he stepped out onto the platform, nearly empty save for a few travelers shuffling out in the cold close to mounds of their belongings. Digging in his pockets, he produced a carton of coffin nails. Tapping the bottom of it in his palm a few times, he snagged a nail between his teeth before shoving the carton back in its place. Raising his left hand to the end of the nail, shielding it from the wind with his right, he snapped his clawed fingers, producing a small flame that immediately caught on the end of the nail alight. Jack took a puff of the coffin nail, letting the warmth flow into him for a few seconds before setting it dangling from the corner of his mouth, and stalked off through the snow.
     Snowflakes traced circuitous paths on their descent towards the ground as Jack trudged along the paved road through the small town towards a wide dirt path lined with magelight lanterns.
     “Am I even headed the right way?” Jack said, his words coming out in an irritated mumble. “Why do the rich always have to have the tallest building in the middle of the damn city or own the biggest patch of dirt in the middle of Godsdamned nowhere?”
The winds whipped up as if in response sending flurries of snow dancing further along the path, Jack clutching his coat tighter to him and raising his collar.
     “Alright, alright, less complaining, got it.”
     It wasn’t the cold that had Jack on edge. Hell, he never much minded the cold ever since the procedure. No, it was the name of the missing girl that was driving him up a wall. It was a name Jack was familiar with. A name that had been a comfort after he had come back from the West, a bright light amid the sterile white corridors and blood-soaked sheets of the hospital he had been evacuated to. A name he’d never thought he’d hear spoken again by anyone, but him, in the quiet moments of his life. A name he’d tried so desperately to forget. And here he was, trudging along an icy patch of dirt, chasing a name he’d been better off forgetting.
     Gods damn Ness. Her name was scrawled across the top of the documents he’d been given in the man’s near-pristine handwriting. Disappear though? The lack of details in the file though was the thing that intrigued him most though. It had him combing over old memories, reopening wounds that had only begun to scab and heal in the recesses of his mind. He put a hand to his forehead as he felt a dull throb wrack his mind.
     I shouldn’t have come back here. There’s too many memories. I should go back to the station, get on the next train to Paradpolis, and tell Ness to shove this whole case right up his boss’ a—
     The words froze his thoughts in place. He had been so preoccupied he hadn’t heard the crunching of snow underfoot, nor the approach of the figure. It was a young woman, her hair like spun gold, eyes like the oceans waves lapping against some forgotten shore, and her skin only a shade brighter than the snow the two of them were surrounded by.
      “Are you..?” That voice. Her voice.
      It was a voice he had heard before, a voice that had been his constant companion. When he had been a child it was at times an annoyance, belonging to a brat that followed him as he stalked the streets of the old neighborhood looking for trouble. At other times it was a comfort, scolding him for his recklessness but filled with concern as he dragged himself in from another row with a boy twice his size. A voice he had heard scream his name in agony in a singular moment of utter helplessness. A voice that haunted his dreams to this very day, absolving him one instant and damning him the next.
     “Ellie.” He breathed the name into the frigid air with a shudder.

     Blood & Ink is a 4,260 word excerpt from a novel that is anticipated to be much, much longer when finally finished. A unique blend of classic pulp detective novels, fantasy, and horror, it falls into a genre that the author has taken to calling “Fantasy Noir.” Set in and around the 1920's-inspired fantasy metropolis of Paradpolis, Private Investigator and Monster Slayer (or P.I.M.S. for short) Jack Valentine has been given work by his old commanding officer: a missing persons job where the person hiring him doesn't want him to find anyone. From there, Jack becomes entangled in a web of conspiracy involving a murder, kidnapping, cults, cartoons, and more than a touch of cannibalism. Get to know the collection of misanthropes, ne'er-do-wells, and outright criminal scum that run through the streets of this rain-slick city, in a genre-twisting mystery that will bury its hooks in you and drag you all the way to the end. The perfect kind of read for those tired of the same-old fantasy tropes and settings, Blood & Ink is just the right balance character- and plot-driven narrative with a smoke-choked voice distinctly its own.
    The author is one Brendan Anthony Michael Forte, another aspiring writer trying to make ends meet with a regular 9 to 5. Born and raised in another one of the cut-and-paste suburban developments around Miami, he was the kid who wore a metal band t-shirt under his Catholic school uniform. Graduating from the University of Central Florida with a major in Film and a minor in Creative Writing in 2014, he has since worked a variety of odd jobs all the while supplementing his unstable income with freelance writing gigs on the side to stay sharp and get paid. With a distinctly dark, twisted, and sarcastic voice shaped from a lifetime of books, movies, comics, video games, and way too much time on the internet, he dreams of the day he can pay at least half his bills through writing.