*The Watcher in the Darkness Series and all characters contained therein are the sole copyright of K.M. Spires. All rights reserved.*
The Watcher in the Darkness series contains adult situations, graphic violence, and lots and lots of bad language. Rated M for Mature, seriously.
The metal surface of the exam table clanged as I strapped down the squirming body bag. Focused on the task at hand, I pretended not to notice the medical examiner’s smile. It made him look like a registered sex offender.
The M.E. was a small man, thin and frail with a wispy beard. Everything about him was pale, from his hair, to his skin, to his eyes. I wondered if he had any fairy in his background, but I didn’t ask. I have no idea what’s politically-correct anymore.
M.E. Creepy sipped herbal tea from a plain white coffee mug as he watched me do his job for him. “Are you sure you don’t mind?” he said for the third time.
I nodded as I took the tools from the autopsy tray. “It’s fine,” I said, and it was, as long as he upheld his part of the bargain.
I unzipped the body bag just enough to expose the ghoul’s face. This one was a pudgy, Hispanic teenager that bared its teeth at me with a growl. My flesh was too cold, so its milky gaze began to sweep the room.
“Don’t worry,” M.E. Creepy said. “I don’t mind you two hanging out down here. Heck, I’m kind of glad for the company. Have you heard anything about Angkor Wat?”
I placed the point of the stainless steel awl against the ghoul’s right eye, near the bridge of its nose. “Can’t say that I have,” I said as I smacked the handle with a rubber mallet. The awl’s sharp spike punched through the thin bone behind the socket. The ghoul went rigid as it let out a choked groan.
M.E. Creepy winced when I jiggled the handle, just as he had with every ghoul I’d disposed of for him. “It’s this gorgeous Buddhist temple in Cambodia. It’s one of the wonders of the world, because of how well it’s preserved. A group of my friends vacationed there during medical school, but I couldn’t afford to go with them at the time.”
I sighed as I dragged the dead ghoul over my shoulder. I stacked its body along with the others I’d already dispatched, inside a huge laundry trolley. An identical bin full of writhing body bags stood next to it. I stretched my aching back as I checked on Karen over my shoulder.
Karen sat behind M.E. Creepy’s desk, hugging a small wastebasket to her chest. Her eyes were vacant and glassy. I saw her shiver despite the white lab coat M.E. Creepy had given her.
I looked away. To M.E. Creepy, I said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be easier to just jiggle their brains in the first bin, then dump them in the second?”
M.E. Creepy lifted his shoulders. “Yeah, but I’m supposed to be giving them all a cursory medical examination before I declare cause of death.” He made no attempt to touch the pile of folders on the table beside him. “Hospital procedure, and all. Like we don’t already know what killed these people. Anyway, the longer I stretch this out, the longer I can avoid filling out the paperwork for every. Single. Ghoul.” He rolled his eyes and made a strangled sound, then smiled at me again. Goddamn, I wanted to punch him. “Again, I really appreciate you doing this. I euthanized eleven all by myself before I couldn’t take it anymore. Say, do you want me to call up to urgent care and check on your mom again, Kare Bear?”
I’d been unaware of this nickname, but M.E. Creepy had yet to call her anything else. I wondered if he knew she referred to him as ‘that freaky weirdo that works in the morgue.’ “No, thank you,” she said in a soft voice.
Guilt, I thought to myself, but said nothing. Also, she probably didn’t want to draw attention to our hiding place. Why would the medical examiner be calling the ER to check on a nurse aide?
“I’m so glad I work down here,” M.E. Creepy said. “Between the quarantine, and whatever gas leak made all those people sick on five? Trying to relocate all those patients? No thanks.” I strapped down the next ghoul as he shook his head. “You know, they tell us in medical school not to think of them as still being alive. It’s really hard when they’re moving around, looking at you, and stuff.”
I whacked the wooden handle, jiggled the awl, then yanked it free. “Not really,” I said. Putting a ghoul out of its misery was the easiest thing in the world.
“Have you ever considered doing these exterminations for a living? You could make pretty good money.”
I laughed under my breath as I carried the body to the bin. “Sure. Because being half-vampire isn’t bad enough?”
M.E. Creepy gave me a steady look. “I don’t think there’s anything bad about you.”
Karen lifted her head from the wastebasket with a frown, but I took it in stride. I’d wondered when he was going make his move.
M.E. Creepy did not pick up on the awkward vibe as I pulled the next ghoul from the live bin. “Are you seeing anyone?” he said.
Karen’s frown became a full-blown scowl.
“No,” I said, answering the question he was really asking. In truth, I wasn’t flattered or offended. Lots of people were turned on by my fangs.
M.E. Creepy shrugged. “Ah, well, it was worth a shot. Hey, what do you like better, Mustangs or Camaros?”
Whack, jiggle, yank. “I’m not really a horse person.”
M.E. Creepy laughed, and Karen had enough. “How many people have died?” she said without a trace of patience.
M.E. Creepy scratched his cheek as he gave this some thought. “You know, I’m not sure. Fifty or sixty. Confirmed, anyway.”
Karen’s irritation drained away then she swallowed hard. “Confirmed?” she said, her voice hollow.
“It seems reanimation is a fairly recent mutation of the pathogen. Before that, the symptoms of the disease varied from victim to victim. Now, they think some of the deaths might have been misattributed to food poisoning, meningitis, anaphylactic shock, and so on.” M.E. Creepy didn’t notice the wounded look on Karen’s face. “I heard one of the CDC doctors say there might be almost twice as many.”
Karen retched into the wastebasket as the door to the morgue opened. Michael frowned when he heard the god-awful, pterodactyl noises she was making. “Everything okay?” he said as he placed his hand on her shoulder.
I sneered. Did she look or sound okay? “Of course, you would show up now that most of the work is done,” I said. Whack, jiggle, yank. “How did it go with the disease people?”
Michael sighed as he rubbed Karen’s shoulders. “Well, we managed to get a meeting with the chief investigator, and he seemed really interested in what we had to tell him.”
I dropped the next ghoul onto the table. “But?” Whack, jiggle, yank.
“But, there’s a ton of bureaucratic bull crap that we have to wade through. I can preach all day that blood-mugging saved my life, but my case was never confirmed by a doctor. Until they get a chance to go over my bloodwork, they can’t be sure I actually had the black flu.”
Karen looked up from the wastebasket, breathing hard. “Black flu?”
M.E. Creepy piped up, as though he’d been part of the conversation. “The microbiologists with CDC are having a hard time classifying exactly what sort of pathogen this is. It has the characteristics of both H1N1 and Yersinia Pestis.”
Whack, jiggle, yank. “Translation, please?” I said.
M.E. Creepy gave me an affectionate look. “Spanish flu and the bubonic plague. Black death.”
I nodded as I piled the latest lobotomized ghoul on top of the others. The heap in the second bin threatened to topple over.
Michael frowned at the way M.E. Creepy watched me work. “As I was saying,” he said, “they were willing to give blood-mugging a shot, as long as the sick people volunteered for the procedure. Plus, I need to provide rebirth certificates for all the vampires involved.”
M.E. Creepy made a disgusted sound. “Yeah, because god forbid we end up with any new vampires.” I knew that was for my benefit, and that he was trying to win me over. It didn’t work; if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s posturing. “Hey, do any of you want to go out to eat after we get done here? On me.”
Michael and I looked at each other. I grew up on the streets, and I hunted drug dealers for sport. Even I had better social skills than this guy. “So, anyway,” Michael said. “I wish I could get more vampires to help. It took two vampires to filter my blood, and I’ve only gotten five of the Disavowed to agree to come to the hospital after the sun goes down. We’re not going to be able to save more than a handful of people at this rate.”
I knew what Michael was driving at. “Sebastian already said that he wouldn’t help,” I said as I strapped the next ghoul down.
Michael rubbed his five-o’clock shadow. “What about the governess?”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Sure, I’ll just ask her over tea next time we get together.”
Michael hesitated then said, “What about Hlin?”
I almost dropped the awl. “Jesus back-flipping Christ, Michael. Do you want me to suck the devil’s dick while I’m at it?”
Michael let out a long breath as he ran his hand through his hair. “Fair enough.”
I jiggled the ghoul on the table, then noticed the look on Karen’s face. “Did you know this one?” I said.
Karen met my gaze, but only for a second. “I’ve known all of them.”
I rolled my eyes, because fuck me straight to death. “Then quit watching,” I said, louder and angrier than I’d intended.
Karen’s ivory brow furrowed. “I have to watch.” Her tone made it clear that arguing with her was pointless.
I moved the next body onto the examination table, wishing Michael would just take Karen out of the room. In my defense, her emotional distress was sapping every ounce of energy I had left. Plus, I would’ve liked a moment alone to process the fact that she was married. I said nothing as I strapped the next ghoul down, unzipped the body bag, then froze.
Karen closed her eyes in exhaustion. “Okay, I don’t know that one.”
I stared at the ghoul’s swollen face and savage eyes. “I do,” I said. It was D.A. Edward Halloran, the prosecutor for my case. Unlike the others, there wasn’t a trace of any rash on his skin. My hand moved on its own, continuing to unzip the body bag. M.E. Creepy frowned as the ghoul gnashed its teeth and growled at him.
“What are you doing?” Michael said when the ghoul’s half-erect cock came into view.
I didn’t answer. Halloran’s blood hadn’t settled to the back of his body, because he didn’t have much left. He didn’t smell of decay, and there was no heat from the fever that should’ve killed him. In fact, the only marks on his body were the two small puncture wounds on his inner thigh.
M.E. Creepy’s eyes widened. “Oh, wait. Never mind. I’m supposed to…I mean, I can do this one.” He moved my hands aside to zip the body bag closed again. “His family wanted him cremated apart from the others, so I need to prep him for the funeral home.” He took the awl and mallet from me. “You guys should probably go before you get caught down here.”
“Good idea,” Michael said, pulling Karen to her feet. “In fact, Tamryn’s in one of the labs down the hall. She said she had something to show us. Why don’t we go see what she has to say?”
I stripped out of the lab coat M.E. Creepy had let me borrow. “Well, thanks, I guess,” I said. And say hello to my grandmother next time you see her.
M.E. Creepy’s pedophile smile beamed. “No, thank you for all your help. It was a real pleasure meeting you.”
I felt my face tighten as I nodded, then I joined the others in the hall. The door to the morgue closed behind us then Karen announced, “Loki’s left nut, how annoying was that guy?”
Michael shook his head. “I hate to say it, but I have to agree.”
I said nothing, deep in thought as we followed Michael to the lab. What did this mean for my trial? If my prosecutor was dead, it was a safe bet that no evidence against me remained. Hell, I’d be surprised if Halloran’s office could still find my case files. Hlin wasn’t the type to get sloppy. So…now what? Was I free?
Karen’s feet dragged as she shuffled down the hall. She appeared ready to fall over, not that I blamed her. I put my hand on her elbow as I said, “Hey, how are you holding up?”
Karen appeared to have lost ten pounds. “I feel sick.”
A flash of terror shot through me. “What do you mean, you feel sick? Do you feel sick because today fucking sucked, or do you feel sick like you think you might be coming down with—?”
“No. I feel contaminated. Down to my soul. I feel like my blood has turned to toxic waste and my organs are filled with tar. I feel like if they burned me at the stake, the flames would be bright green and last for a week. Then, when I’m nothing but ash, the ground beneath me would be poisoned, simply because I’d stood there. That, Toby, is how I’m holding up.”
Wow. Okay, then. “I guess I can understand that.”
Karen pulled her arm out of my hand. “Trust me. You don’t.”
I had a lot to say but decided to keep my mouth shut. I followed Karen and Michael into the darkened lab, where Dr. S peered into a microscope. She lifted her head as we approached, her eyes glittering with excitement.
“I’ve done it,” she said in greeting. “I’ve figured out how the black flu is being transmitted.”
Karen sat down hard on a nearby stool as I crossed my arms. “We know how it’s spreading,” I said. “I thought we were focused on getting more vampires to go along with the cure.”
Dr. S nodded. “We are, but there’s no way in hell we’re going to get humans to accept help from vampires. Not without solid proof that there’s no other way. The good news is, the blood we drew from Father Cooper confirmed that there are dead and severely weakened black flu microbes in his bloodstream. The bad news is, the CDC seems far more interested in duplicating his antibodies to create some sort of vaccine. That could take months, and it does nothing to help the people that are sick right now. Taking advantage of Immunoglobulin V is a violation of some sort of ancient treaty or…whatever.” She waved her hand in dismissal. “Anyway, what I wanted to show you guys is this.”
Dr. S reached under the lab table to pick up a bright orange biohazard bag. She snapped on some latex gloves, then reached inside to pull out Michael’s dead, floppy kitten. It was still cute despite its mangled spine, and Karen made a sympathetic noise.
Dr. S laid the animal flat on the table. “While the two of you have been running around doing whatever it is you’ve been doing all day, we’ve been at the Sanctuary trying to recruit vampires to make an actual difference.”
Karen and I exchanged looks.
“Well, after your revenant friend killed it, I put this poor baby in a shoebox until we could get around to burying her properly. After a while, I noticed that I couldn’t detect any scent of decay.”
“So?” I said. “It’s only been about a day, right?” I took a moment to marvel at that realization. So much has happened since…aw, fuck, I’d forgotten about Song.
Dr. S gave me a superior look. “Decomposition begins immediately, but it’s more than that. This cat smells like nothing, not even water or air. Plus…” She picked up its tiny body then shook it. “There is no rigor mortis.”
So, it was a demon. I sucked on my front teeth, unimpressed. “Are you going somewhere with this?”
She glared at me. “I am. Everything I just told you defies scientific explanation, therefore I took it upon myself to investigate.” Dr. S plunged her fingers into a slit in the cat’s stomach then pried it open. Karen gagged as she turned away.
Even I couldn’t help but be disgusted. “Of course, ‘investigate’ to you means cut it open.”
“Such is the way of scientific discovery,” Dr. S said. “And, I’m glad I thought to do so. This animal has no organs.”
I blinked in surprise. “What do you mean?”
Dr. S turned the eviscerated cat so we could see for ourselves. “I mean what I said. This kitten has no liver, intestines, heart, lungs, anything.”
Under the white fur, there was nothing but bloodless, stringy pink flesh that went all of the way through the animal. In fact, its insides looked like gooey fruit.
“It’s a golem,” Michael said. “A flesh golem. We talked about them a bit in seminary, but I never thought I’d actually see one.”
“The point is, this animal is not natural and was manifested through magic. I took a swab of the sticky stuff that’s inside this thing, and it’s absolutely swarming with black flu. Not only that, the microbes are still very much alive.” Dr. S stared at us, as though expecting applause. “Don’t you guys understand? This disease isn’t some random mutation of nature. I’ve met your revenant face to face, and there’s no way in hell she created this thing.” Dr. S dropped the kitten back into the biohazard bag. “If you recall, she’s the one that killed it. So, what if her presence is just a coincidence?”
“Or a warning,” I said. I knew then why Sebastian had been so smug when I’d said that revenants were the harbingers of plague. Harbinger didn’t mean the same thing as cause; it meant omen. Sometimes, a lack of education can be a huge pain in the ass.
“But the cat is dead,” Michael said. “That should stop the black flu from spreading, at least?”
Karen got up from her stool, turning on the balls of her feet. “There are more golems. Lots, lots more.” She slammed through the door, out into the hall.
All at once, I was hammered flat by the most horrible realization I’ve ever had. It was worse than waking up buried alive with a stake through my chest. It was even worse than discovering I’d been the one that killed Justine.
I started after Karen. No. No, no, no, no. Please, god, no.
I reached the hall in time to see Karen get onto the elevator. I ran after her, but the doors slid closed the second before I reached them.
In the movies, there would’ve been some sort of dial above the elevator to let me know which way it had gone. This wasn’t a movie, though; it was a waking nightmare. I had to guess which way she had fled, so I assumed the worst. I slammed through the stairwell doors then raced toward the roof, even as I prayed I was wrong.
I wasn’t wrong.
I got there in time to see Karen step onto the ledge, an eight story drop spread out below her. Framed by the sunset, her hair cascaded on the wind. She turned her head when she heard me come through the door, but pointed her finger at me in warning. “Stay back!” she screamed. “Don’t you dare come near me!”
My heart swelled, crowding out my lungs as it threatened to break my ribs. I held up my hands as though that would somehow keep her from jumping. “Karen, please. You don’t have to do this.”
“Yes, I do!” Her voice was shrill, and every sob blasted through me like a bullet. “I killed them, Toby! I killed all those people!”
“You didn’t. Karen, you didn’t kill anyone. It was—”
Karen shook her head. “What the hell was I thinking? That I could create life? All I’m good for is death.”
“That’s not true. You can help people, Karen. I’ve seen you do it.”
“You saw that cat, Toby! It was one of twelve. I made more golems every single day.”
It was like someone had poured a bucket of ice water over my head.
“Birds, puppies, mice, rabbits…they’re everywhere. They’re fucking everywhere!”
I know my face betrayed my horror as I said, “We’ll find them. We’ll…I don’t know, we’ll get the word out. Please, for the love of fucking god, come down from there.”
Karen turned toward me. “Don’t try to save me, Toby. I don’t deserve to be saved. I’m a monster.”
“You were tricked, Karen. There was no way you could have known that Khalid was infecting those golems with the black flu.”
“I should’ve known. I should’ve figured it out. Justine figured it out. Hell, she’s fighting it now!”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do know,” Karen said, her voice empty. “She showed me, back at the school. She showed me everything. You should have left me to burn!”
I closed my eyes in self-loathing. Why had I been so slow to put it together? “Fuck that. You think Justine never made mistakes? She let the man that killed her live in her spare room.”
“It’s not the same. I can’t live with this. I can’t live with their faces in my head for the rest of my life.”
I pressed my hands together. “Karen, please listen to me. No one understands the feeling you’re describing better than I do. It hurts, and it makes you sick, and it makes you want to die, but that’s not the answer.”
Karen sniffled as she wiped her cheeks, suddenly calm. “Tell my mom and my little brother that I love them. They’ll never understand, but tell them that I’m sorry.”
Before she could lean back, I yelled, “What about me, Karen? Do you have any last words for me? Or are you going to kill yourself right in front of me like I don’t fucking matter to you at all?”
Karen looked away in misery.
“Karen, I swear to god, if you jump, I’m going over the edge right after you.”
Karen was caught off guard by the sincerity in my voice. “Toby, no…”
I took a step toward the ledge. “That’s right. If you go, I go. And, I’ll make sure to land head-first so I don’t limp away from this.”
Karen looked over her shoulder, at the sea of unmoving fog far below, then back at me. “You can’t,” she said, her eyes wide.
“Why not? You can, so why can’t I? Without you, what the hell is left for me?” I took another step toward the ledge, but kept my distance so I wouldn’t spook her. “Do you want to go at the same time? Because we can.”
Karen shook her head in desperation. “No, don’t you see? If I die, that demon bitch has nothing on you. You’re free. Your curse is broken.”
I let out a short breath of contempt. In hindsight, it was all so obvious. Gwen had never meant for me to kill Justine. Karen had been her intended target all along. “I don’t care. I’m not afraid of Gwen. What can she do to me that’s worse than this? She wants me to do her dirty work for her, but she can go fuck herself. I’m not going to kill you. She can stick a stake in my chest and put back me in the ground forever. If you die, I die. That’s it.”
Karen looked as though I’d broken her heart. “That’s not fair.”
“Fair? Karen, what the fuck in life is fair? There is no such thing as fair. Ask your mom about fair. If life was fair, Justine would still be alive and Ellie would have both legs. If life was fair, your biggest problem would be what to wear to prom. You think life cares about fair? Life can eat a dick, Karen. The trick is to find people that make it suck just a little bit less. For me, that’s you. No one else.”
Tears filled Karen’s eyes again.
“You know that this was Khalid’s plan all along right?” Karen shook her head in denial. “Sure, he spoiled you with money and clothes to make you want to stay, but he was never, ever going to let you leave.”
“He said he loved me,” Karen said, her voice a strained whisper.
“I’m sure he did, which is why he killed the people he killed. Bad Karen attacking your school made it look like you did it. Ninety-nine percent of the people that have died were your friends. Your teachers. Trevor. That kid that lived behind you.”
Karen’s eyes widened. “Carly’s dead?”
Fuck. Fuck, fuckity, fuck-fuck-fuck. “Anyone that would’ve noticed you were gone had to die. The only way Khalid could keep you from leaving was to make sure you had nowhere else to go. That’s why you didn’t see this coming, Karen. You’d have to be a fucking serial-killer-psychopath to see this sort of thing coming.”
I watched as Karen accepted the truth of my words, but it was just a fresh wound, bleeding with all the rest. “I can’t live with this,” she said.
“Then neither can I. Hell, Khalid might’ve planned this from the start, but it’s my fault he pulled the trigger. If I hadn’t tracked you down, he wouldn’t have felt threatened.” I stepped onto the ledge. “Come on, we’ll go together.”
“No!” Karen lunged for me, her hand outstretched. I grabbed her by the wrist then stepped back onto the roof, dragging her with me.
Karen leaned back as she tried to pull her hand out of mine, screaming something I couldn’t understand. When she realized I wasn’t going to let her go, she pounded my chest. I wrapped her in a hug, holding her tight until she went limp.
Karen whimpered as she wrapped her arms around my neck. “You’re a real asshole, do you know that?”
I turned my face into her neck as I took great big, greedy gulps of her scent. “Yeah, I know.”
Karen pulled away, but just enough to look into my eyes. “What are we going to do?” she said, pleading.
I opened my mouth to reassure her, but nothing came to me. This problem was so huge, and so impossible, that I didn’t want to face it yet. Finally, I shrugged. “I don’t know. We’ll figure something out. I promise.”
Yeah, it was bullshit, but Karen didn’t call me on it. She put her hands on the sides of my face, and I looked into her red, swollen eyes. Her nose was pink. Her dry lips were cracked and pale. She was, hands-down, the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.
Before I could say a word or act on the crazy impulse that went through my head, I was interrupted by a deep growl. Karen and I turned toward the sound.
The hellhound stood a few feet away. Its eyes burned, its yellow teeth were bared, and its hackles stood on end. The second our eyes met, the animal lunged toward us.
I shoved Karen away as I raised my arms to grab the beast. Turns out, I wasn’t its target. The wolf leapt past me, slamming into Karen. She screamed as she wrapped her arms around it’s chest, disappearing into its thick, black fur. I could do nothing but watch as they sailed over the ledge.