With a wave of his hand, Conan Doyle wished them all unseen.
Beacon Street remained tied in a knot, the traffic backup affecting all of downtown Boston. I would surely detest being a commuter this evening, Conan Doyle thought, walking with his entourage toward the scene of the crime.
"Stay in my general vicinity," he instructed, "the spell loses its potency the farther you wander away from me."
They approached the building, observing a sports utility vehicle, its rooftop obviously crushed by something falling on it, being hoisted up onto the back of a tow truck.
"I bet whatever did that," Squire said pointing to the vehicle, "came from there." He craned his neck to look up at the shattered third story window.
"Man, can't pull the wool over your eyes, can they?" Eve said, walking away from them toward a coroner's van parked on the other side of the street.
"You need to stay with . . ." Conan Doyle began, but realized his pleas were falling upon deaf ears. Instead, they all followed the vampiress.
"Do you smell it?" she asked, hopping up into the back of the vehicle, crouching slightly as she unzipped the body bag to take a look at the contents. "I'd say this was our skydiver."
Ceridwen brought a delicate hand to her face. "The remains stink of demonic magics," she said.
"Bingo." Eve wrinkled her nose in distaste.
Conan Doyle climbed into the back of the van with Eve, examining the body. "It was certainly the fall that resulted in this unfortunate woman's death," he observed. "But it was dark magic that took her there."
"I say we check out the dead broad's digs, before any evidence is removed," the hobgoblin said, hiking up his pants and adjusting the rim of his baseball cap.
"An excellent idea, Squire," Conan Doyle said, stepping from the van.
"And they said watching reruns of CSI was a waste of time," Squire muttered as they returned to the apartment building across the street.
Detectives and uniformed police officers were still milling about as they entered the building, went up the stairs, and into the apartment. A crime scene photographer was taking pictures of a headless corpse lying upon the kitchen floor.
"Wonder where the head is?" Squire mused aloud, bending down to look under the kitchen table and chairs as Doyle studied the spray of blood on the ceiling above them.
Ceridwen stood by a withered houseplant in the corner of the living room, her hands gently caressing the yellowed leaves back to full vigor. "There was a demon here," she said. "The proximity to the foul beast nearly killed her."
Conan Doyle squatted down on his haunches, examining an identification tag hanging from the belt loop of the corpse's trousers. "LeeAnne Fogg," he read. "She was a registered nurse." He rose, his knees popping uncomfortably. The wear and tear of the passing years was sneaking up on him yet again, and he made a mental note to partake of some of Faerie's recuperative elixirs once things had calmed a bit.
"Hey!" Eve called, motioning for them to follow her.
The police officers in the room moved from their path, gently pushed aside by the Conan Doyle's sorcery, still unaware of their presence. He, Squire, and Ceridwen followed Eve down a short corridor and into a room now frigid with cold from the broken window. Conan Doyle noticed that a blanket had been placed over the open window, likely to protect any physical evidence from being blown away. Two lab techs finished up whatever it was they were doing, the sudden desire to leave incited by Conan Doyle's spell.
"Here's the point of departure," Eve said standing in front of the billowing blanket, but Conan Doyle's gaze was fixed upon the large bed positioned in the center of the room. Piles of ash lay on the sheets in the shape of a human body, the bedclothes untouched, though it had taken incredible heat to immolate the victim.
"So what do you think?" Squire asked, eating from a bag of corn chips. "Spontaneous human combustion, or what?"
Conan Doyle shook his head as he reached out, allowing his fingertips to sink into the ashen remains. Closing his eyes, he concentrated, reading the traces of dark magicks left behind.
"I'd like a sample of this," he said, turning to Ceridwen.
"Wait," Squire said, shaking out the last of the corn chips from the bag and dropping them into his mouth. "You can put them in here," he explained, wiping his greasy fingers on the front of his clothes.
"Where'd you get those?" Eve asked.
"I found'em in the kitchen - got a problem with that?" he asked defensively.
"Scavenger," she snarled.
Squire brandished his stubby middle finger then turned to offer Conan Doyle the corn chip bag.
He politely refused, again turning to Ceridwen. "If you would be so kind, my dear."
The elemental sorceress waved her hand, her movements like the first gestures of a graceful dance. A bubble of air solidified in the path of her hand, and she directed it down to the burned remains where it engulfed a few ounces the ash, lifting it into the air to float before his face.
"Thank you, love," he said, taking the solidified bubble and placing it in his jacket pocket.
"So what's your handle on this, boss?" Squire asked. "From what I seen here, this ain't your run-of-the-mill demonic manifestation. This prick's got balls - big ones."
Eve strolled around the room, her predator's eye looking for anything that could be of use. "We were talking before about rules. There are rules against demons this powerful being able to cross over."
"You're correct," Conan Doyle said. "The dimensions are not meant to be porous."
Ceridwen wrapped her arms about herself as if cold, but Conan Doyle understood it was much more than that.
"The fabric of things seems to be unraveling since the Nimble Man and the release of Sanguedolce," Fey sorceress said. "Perhaps the demons have begun to think that the human world doesn't have its protectors any longer."
"A disturbing thought," Conan Doyle said as he moved toward the door. "If you're correct, then we will have to remind the denizens of the dark realms that protectors still exist. And I suggest we use our current demonic invader as an example."
"I like the way you think, boss," Squire said. "Time to open up a big ol' can of whupass. 'Course, I'll mostly just be opening the can. I prefer to let the rest of you do the whupassing . . . ass-whupping. Whatever."
"Candy ass," Eve said. "What a coward."
Squire grinned. "I'm a delicate flower."
Ceridwen furrowed her brow, her perfect, cold beauty almost alien in the shadowed hallway. "Squire, I will never claim to understand you. I have seen you in combat. You can be quite formidable when you choose."
The hobgoblin shrugged. "What can I say? I'm a lover, not a fighter. I'd much rather watch Eve getting all dirty and bloody, fighting in clingy outfits, than do it myself. If I could do that, and have beer and pizza at the same time . . . that'd be Heaven."
Conan Doyle sighed and tuned them out, unable to listen even a moment longer. He knew that when circumstances turned dire, there were no better allies in the world, no greater hope for humanity than his Menagerie. But sometimes that idea frightened him.
They descended the stairs to the lobby, exiting the building in the November cold.
"What now?" Eve asked, pulling the collar of her stylish cranberry colored leather jacket up against her neck.
Conan Doyle removed his gloves from his coat pocket and slipped them over his hands. "Ceridwen and I will return home to further analyze this sample of remains. Something tells me there is more to be learned here."
"And us?" Squire asked, his eyes shifting toward Eve standing beside him.
"You two will find its scent," he said, placing his arm around Ceridwen's waist and directing her toward Charles Street. "And hunt it down."
"Is that all?" Squire asked sarcastically.
Conan Doyle thought for a moment. "Teach it a lesson," he said, walking away. "Show it that humanity is far from being unprotected."
Where the hell are they going now? Danny wondered. He was perched on the rooftop, watching his friends go their separate ways. They were supposedly checking out some scene of potential demonic activity, and if that wasn't something that could take his mind off his troubles, nothing would.
He considered leaping across to the building, checking out things on his own, but thought better of it. All he'd need is some cop to see him, and then the shit would really hit the fan. All he needed was to give Conan Doyle another reason to be pissed at him.
He slumped down to the roof, closing his eyes, letting the cold night air wash over him. He was thinking about his mom, the look on her face after he'd hit her.
Did I really want to hurt her? he wondered, a twinge of fear causing the strange growth on his chest to tingle. He scratched at himself. He'd just been angry. He could never really hurt his mother.
Or could he?
For a brief instant, he imagined his teeth sinking into the flesh of her throat, her warm, salty blood exploding into his eagerly waiting mouth.
"Shit!" Danny said aloud, scrambling to his feet. He wanted to scrub his brain of the imagery. What the fuck is wrong with me?
He decided to return to Louisburg Square and take whatever penance Mr. Doyle could dish out. Then he would tell the man what had been happening, and how much it scared him.
But another image flashed through his mind. He saw himself chained in the basement of the Beacon Hill home, a dirty mattress on the floor, a metal pan of water nearby.
That irrational rage surged up inside him.
Nobody's going to lock me up like a dog, he thought, baring his fangs in a snarl. I'd just like to see them try.
"Such anger," said a voice from the shadows, and Danny spun toward it, ready for anything. He hoped for a fight - he was itching to spill some blood.
The guy who emerged from the shadows was big, and he stank of rancid meat, but he wasn't the kind of threat Danny was hoping for. He immediately pulled back on his rage.
"Don't do that on my account," the man said extending his hand. His fingertips were bloody, squared off, missing. "I was nearly two blocks away when I sensed you."
The guy was smiling now, and Danny noticed the rips in the flesh of his jowly face. For a moment, he could have sworn he saw another kind of skin beneath it. Maybe he'd been wrong; maybe this was exactly the kind of situation he was looking for.
"So you sensed me, huh?" Danny said.
The guy moved strangely, as if he weren't comfortable in his own skin, and his eyes were crazy, too, a milky yellow that reminded Danny of pus.
They look kind of like mine.
"I can't believe how fortuitous this is," the big man said. "It saves me from having to find you."
Danny chuckled, a throaty growl coming from somewhere in the vicinity of his toes. "Well, you've found me. Now what are you going to do?"
The man tilted his round head to one side, studying him. "Arrogance as well as anger," he observed. He smiled again, and this time Danny could see that the skin around his mouth was torn, as if he'd opened his mouth too wide.
"You are indeed your father's son."
Danny was taken aback. "What do you mean by -"
The man moved faster than a guy that size had any right to move. He lunged and slapped him across the face with such force that Danny went down hard, the taste of his own blood filling his mouth. He liked the taste; it made him angry. Springing to his feet, he bared his fangs.
"Come," the stranger said, motioning to him with his squared off fingers. "Show me your potential."
Danny charged, swinging his fist as hard as he could. He relished the feel of his hand connecting, the texture of flesh tearing on the roughness of his knuckles. He punched the man again, and then a third time.
The man stumbled back, but didn't go down. He was bent over, covering his face, and Danny could see tatters of flesh hanging from between his fingers.
"So, do I have potential, or what?" he asked, running his rough, pointed tongue over his stained knuckles. Feeling like the badass he knew he was.
"Oh yes," the man replied. "There's potential indeed. It appears that this world agrees with you."
The man righted himself, and Danny gasped.
His face was practically gone, torn away to reveal a reptilian visage behind the mask of human flesh. Dropping down on all fours, his limbs bending in ways impossible to the human anatomy, the man - the thing - came at him across the rooftop. Danny stepped back as the creature sprang to its feet in front of him, bones popping obscenely as they reconfigured to reflect the armature of a biped.
The beast attacked, pummeling him again and again.
Danny wanted to fight back, to release the bestial anger and frustration that had been building inside him for weeks, but shock stayed his hand, and all he could do was take the beating - blow after savage blow that drove him back across the rooftop. Finally he felt the backs of his legs hit the ledge, and then he was falling backward.
Panic spiked through him, but then he felt a vice-like grip lock onto the front of his sweatshirt, and the relentless beast hauled him up and tossed him back onto the roof. Danny struggled to shake off the weird numbness he was feeling throughout his body, tried to ignore the trickling blood that ran freely from his injured face to stain the ground before him.
"You show me respect by not striking back," the monster said, the suit of flesh he wore hanging from his hands and face in tatters.
"Believe me, I would if I could," Danny said, spitting the taste of blood from his mouth.
The monster smiled. "Deep down, you know," it growled, "your true self knows my identity."
Danny scowled. "Let me guess," he scoffed, "you're my father."
And the monster nodded. "Yes," it hissed, reaching up with its clawed hands to pull away the flesh that hid its true visage.
"No fucking way," Danny shrieked watching as the monstrosity revealed itself. "It was a fucking joke! Y'know, the whole Darth Vader thing . . . Jesus is this fucking bad!"
"Your heritage is no joking matter," the demon said, sloughing off its skin and standing there in all its horrific glory. It was much taller than it had appeared within the man-flesh.
Danny felt it deep inside. He didn't want to believe that something this awful could have anything to do with him, but he knew it was true - he felt it in every fiber of his changing being. This thing was somehow part of him.
The words left his mouth before he even had chance to stop them. "What . . . what do you want?"
The demon glided toward him. He'd never seen any living thing move in such a way. Freaky as it was, it was also strangely cool.
"I've come for you," it said, reaching out one of its long, skeletal hands to touch his chest. "To take you away from here."
Danny felt the fleshy growth beneath his clothing begin to throb painfully.
"Your true nature is screaming to emerge," it said. "Eager to escape the restricting confines of humanity." The demon looked around, peering out over the city of Boston. "And it is good that you leave here while you still can, for soon this will be nothing more than rubble and death."
"What are you talking about?" Danny said, shaking his head in confusion.
"The reverberations are felt across the world . . . across all dimensions. The Demogorgon approaches. I came back to the human world because I knew if I did not come now, soon there might have been no world left for me to visit. I came back . . . for you."
The demon held out his hand. "Will you come with me?"
The monster that he was becoming chattered inside with glee, anxious to be part of something bigger, but Danny shook his head. He'd heard about this thing before, the Demogorgon. Conan Doyle and the others were practically obsessed with it. This thing - the demon - talking about it made him understand for the first time what it really meant.
This wasn't just another monster for them to thrash. The whole world really was in jeopardy. His mother would die. The world . . .
He shook his head again. Julia Ferrick had raised him as her son. No matter what he looked like, no matter what instincts he might have, under the skin he was still Danny Ferrick. She'd given him humanity, and it was still strong inside of him.
"I'm not like you," he said, knowing there was only partial truth to his words.
The demon smiled again, a Cheshire cat grin that chilled him to the very bone. "But you will be," it said, reaching out to lovingly stroke his face.
"You will be."
"You getting anything?" Squire asked.
Eve scowled at the hobgoblin, as the two of them walked down Newbury Street, on the hunt. "You just asked me that a minute ago."
She tilted her head back slightly, sniffing the cold, prewinter air. The November night was crisp. The glow of headlights washed over them, but she ignored them, searching for that scent. "When I get something you'll be the first to know."
Squire grumbled, shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his leather jacket. "It ain't right," he said, waiting for her to respond.
Eve sighed. "What isn't right, Squire?"
"Funny you should ask," he responded. "Don't you feel it? Something ain't right - it's all out of whack."
She hated to admit it, but the little prick was right. There was definitely something not quite right of late. The air was filled with smells that didn't belong - aromas that weren't there before the nasty business with Sanguedolce, and the Nimble Man. Nasty things carried on the winds of change.
"I think the son of a bitch has figured out how to mask his scent or something." Squire stopped to buy a pretzel from a vendor near Newbury Comics.
He offered Eve a bite.
She shook her head. "No thanks," she said, looking around, feeling a certain sense of futility to being out there tonight. "Y'know, I'll hate myself for saying this, but I think you're right."
The goblin feigned surprise, pretending to choke on his pretzel. "What was that I heard?"
"Oh knock it off, you asshole. You heard me."
"Yeah, and it was music to my ears," he said, enjoying the moment immensely.
They moved off of Newbury onto Massachusetts Avenue, walking across section of sidewalk that passed over the turnpike.
"It's no good," she said. "The signals I'm getting are all wrong."
"I told ya, it's fucked up," Squire said, finished with his snack, and licking his fingers clean of salt. "I bet it's got something to do with that skinned body I saw," he said, stroking his chin.
"Go on," she said, turning onto Boylston Street.
"Well," he started. "One of the bodies was partially eaten, but the other one was skinned. Why would he chew on one, but not the other, unless he didn't want to damage it? The skin's missing. What if it's not a trophy?"
Eve paused and regarded him. "You think he's wearing it?"
Squire tapped a finger to his temple. "That's the thought that I have. I'll bet he's using it to mask his nasty demon funk."
"I've heard weirder theories," she said, waiting for traffic to thin before she started across the street toward the Hynes Convention Center.
A car beeped at them, and the two turned in unison to flip off the driver. They got to the other side and headed up the side street toward the Sheraton Hotel.
"What we need, no offense, is something with a more discerning sniffer," the hobgoblin said, tapping the side of his bulbous nose.
"Who do you have in mind?"
He smiled the nasty grin that always made her want to slap him, then abruptly shot across the street toward a parking garage that had once been attached to one of the city's better movie theaters, now turned barroom.
"Y'know, I've kind of had my fill of parking garages lately," Eve called after him.
"I need some shadow," Squire hollered over his shoulder.
As she caught up to him, the hobgoblin cast a sidelong glance at her, smiling broadly. "You ever get one of those ideas where it just hits you over the fuckin' head, and you realize you're a genius?"
"Every day," she drawled. "Why don't you tell me what your bright idea is and let me be the judge of your genius."
A bright spotlight inside the parking garage created a deep patch of shadow next to a trash barrel with a bright orange top. "Give me a few," he said, disappearing into the darkness just like he'd dive into a deep pool of water.
No matter how many times she'd seen him do it, she was still impressed with what an amazing talent it was. Near invulnerability, superhuman strength, and animal-like reflexes were one thing, but the ability to travel using shadows? That was just too cool for words. Of course, she'd never share that with him, the miserable piece of crap that he was. That would be the day when she ever admitted to being envious of Squire.
Leaning back against a nearby wall she turned her attention to the pool of shadow, attempting to peer inside its seemingly impenetrable depths, searching for any sign of the hobgoblin. She glanced at her watch, becoming antsy. She hated to stand around doing nothing. Conan Doyle was depending on them to come up with something, and even if they didn't she at least wanted to be able to explain to the arch mage that they'd tried everything that they could.
"C'mon asshole," she muttered, pushing off the wall and moving closer to hobgoblin's entrance to the shadow path. She focused on the darkness. "Hey," she yelled at it, hoping that wherever he was, he could hear her. "We don't have all night, let's go."
She was seriously considering heading next door to the bar, when she heard something. Eve turned back to the shadow beside the trash barrel.
"Is that you?" she asked, leaning toward the pool of inky black. "If it's not, I'm taking off to get a drink, and you can just -"
The beast exploded out of the darkness, pinning her to the ground with its mass. Its skin was as black as the shadows from which it sprang, powerful muscles rippling beneath. She hurled its growling bulk off her, springing to her feet as the nails on her hands morphed to talons.
"Let's go, fucker," she said, studying the creature, not sure she'd ever seen anything quite like it before.
It eyed her from where it had landed, its beady, red eyes shining from within deep pools of shadows that made up its large, blocky head. It whined pathetically, tilting its head to one side; then sniffing the air in her general direction.
"That's it, Fido," she sneered. "Get a good whiff of the bitch that's gonna hand you your balls."
It emitted a strange, garbled sound like it was barking under water. But it did not advance. Instead, it backed up and barked at her again.
Eve hissed, flexing the claws on her elongated hands, preparing to strike.
"What are you doing?" Squire asked, his head and body emerging from the shadows. He was holding a chain and spiked collar in his hand.
Eve stared at him, gaze shifting from the hobgoblin to the slavering shadow beast and back. "This is what we're going to use to track our demon?"
Squire patted the front of his leg, and the large beast galloped over to him, its curled tail tucked between its legs, its strangely shaped ears hanging lower on its large head.
"What did ya do to him?" Squire asked, patting the beast.
"He attacked me," Eve tried to explain.
"Shuck just got a little excited when I told him he was goin' for a walk," Squire explained. "Got away from me before I could put his leash on."
"It's his name, and his species." The hobgoblin made baby noises toward the animal, allowing it to lick his face with a tongue that resembled a giant leech engorged with blood. "He's a Black Shuck. A friend let me borrow him."
"That's just disgusting," Eve said, watching as the beast continued to lick Squire's face as he slipped the collar over its enormous head.
"Naw," Squire said affectionately. "He's a good boy, ain't ya Shucky?"
Eve brushed the front of her leather jacket. "It got schmutz all over me," she said, checking out the legs of her jeans.
"It'll be worth a little schmutz once you see what this bad-boy can do," the hobgoblin said, patting the side of the big beast. It sounded like he was beating on a drum.
"I take it shuck are good trackers?"
"The best when you're talkin' about demons," Squire explained. "These guys hate the fuckers. It's a natural instinct they got."
Eve crossed her arms, waiting to be impressed. "Well?"
Squire smiled, holding on to Shuck's leash. He leaned forward and whispered in the animal's ear. "Do ya smell it, boy?" he asked. "Where is it - can ya find the demon for us?"
Shuck suddenly became very alert, its nose raised, sniffing eagerly. Then it began to growl, quickly padding toward the exit.
"See?" Squire said proudly, as he was dragged along behind the beast.
Eve walked quickly behind the pair, curious as to how this would play out. They where heading back toward Beacon Street.
"He's just taking us back to where we started," Eve yelled, scrambling to keep up.
"I don't think so," Squire said.
The looks they were getting were something. People actually tried to stop Squire to ask what kind of dog Shuck was. The animal didn't give him a chance to answer, pulling him along at a good clip. The hobgoblin was practically running, his stubby little legs having a hard time keeping up with the nearly galloping shadow beast.
The scene of the crime had been cleaned up pretty well. Only the crime scene tape would have given away what had happened there, if they hadn't known. Shuck sniffed around a building across from the where the demon had struck and perked up abruptly. With a growl, he leaped over a black, wrought iron fence that separated two buildings.
"Ah shit!" Eve heard Squire yelp.
"What's the matter, Mary?" she said, coming to stand beside him. "Did you lose your doggy?"
Squire stood at the gate, peering through the bars into the darkness. "Nope, there he goes."
Eve looked in the direction of Squire's stubby, pointing finger and saw the black beast climbing, spider-like, up the side of the building.
"He's not really a dog, is he?" Eve said.
"Never said he was." Squire looked around to make sure nobody was watching as he climbed the fence. "I'll meet you up there," he said and dove into a pool of shadow, disappearing from sight.
"Great," she said, stepping back, gazing up toward the roof of the apartment building. Then she leaped over the wrought iron fence and, following Shuck's lead, began to climb up the side of the building.
Eve threw her leg over the top of the roof, arriving just as Squire emerged from a puddle of darkness across from her. "Where is he?" she asked, searching for the animal.
Its flesh was so black it practically blended with the darkness of the night, but they spotted the beast lying down, chewing eagerly on something it had found.
"Whatcha got there, boy?" Squire asked, walking over to the animal.
It growled at him, baring razor sharp teeth.
"Don't you growl at me, you ungrateful mutt!" Squire snapped.
As Eve approached, it glared at her as well, but the animal's growling ceased at once, its long, pointed tail wagging furiously. As if presenting her with a gift, Shuck picked up what it had been gnawing on and brought it to her, dropping it at her feet.
Eve looked down, the smell of death wafting up from the large, bloody pile. "That's skin, isn't it?" She poked the flesh and strips of torn clothing with the pointed toe of her boot.
"It certainly is," Squire said.
"Thought so." Eve looked back at the shuck. It was now sitting down, looking at her adoringly, tail wagging.
It gave her the creeps.