I was staring at the lion fish gulping air amongst the shards of broken glass and coral scattered over the shag carpet. Smaller candy-colored fish twitched their last between bits of kitschy aquarium decor—a plastic treasure chest, a skull, a figurine sporting an old atmospheric diving suit—that had a moment ago decorated the sandy bottom of Keno’s 100-gallon pride and joy.
“Hoe-lee, shit.” Gerald ejected the magazine from his pistol and slapped in a fresh load.
“No,” I pumped another round into my Remington. “Just another piece of Ninth Circle shit.” A thin whisp of smoke coiled around the muzzle of my Remington as I turned to face him. “I don’t suppose you actually hit it? ‘Cause you sure as shit got everything else.”
Gerald puffed his cheeks and shrugged. “Fast little fucker, I’ll give ’em that.” He smiled weakly and went to examine the destroyed fish tank. He stepped gingerly,careful to avoid the glistening sea life slowly suffocating under the weight of their collapsed gills.
I walked back over to Keno.Had it not been for the softball-sized crater in his chest, he would have simply looked like a guy who had fallen asleep in front of the t.v. after a few beers. His tattooed arms, a writhing collage of snakes and skulls and cryptic phrases done up in old school chicano—Hierba mala nunca muere and muerte sin testigos—hung limply over the arms of the recliner. His chin rested on his chest, an unlit cigarette stuck to his bottom lip. In his lap a catalogue for exotic pets was opened to a page on pythons and boa constrictors.
I crouched next to the Lazyboy, laying the shotgun across my lap, and peeled the blood-soaked catalogue from his chinos. I did a quick pat-down and checked for a pulse. Nothing.
You could never be too sure with these harbingers. Sometimes they sold parts of themselves to their familiars for a little mojo. Apparently Keno hadn’t gotten around to that yet, because he was dead as a fucking door nail. “Should’ve stuck to temporal trafficking, my friend.” I turned his hand over. No stigmata. Ran my hand over his arm and his leg, squeezing as I went along. To the outside observer it might have looked like necrophilia foreplay, but I was checking for bogginess, a sign of imminent reanimation. Keno, however, was as plump as a Thanksgiving turkey. “Good boy.” I patted his leg and got up.
“Gerald, start searching the back rooms. I’ll take the kitchen.”
“Looka this fuckin’ thing.” Gerald extracted his hand from the tank and held up between thumb and forefinger a spiny sea cucumber. “Looks like some shit out of a hentai strip.”
I shook my head and pumped a fresh round into my 870. “Stop fucking around. We ain’t got all day.” I squished past him and started toward the kitchen.
Gerald was my best friend, but he was also a complete idiot. He scraped against my better intentions like a rusty box grater, but he had the second sight, which made him indispensable. Even if he was a lousy shot.
Passing through a short hallway lined with old, shit-encrusted cages, many of them home to small lumps of feathered and furred decay, I entered the kitchen. Smaller fish tanks containing red-eared sliders, salamanders, and various other forms of amphibian life lined the counter tops. More cages, seemingly empty, were piled up next to and on top of the fridge. I fished my thermal imaging monocle from my breast pocket and clipped it to the receiver of the Remington. Raising the gun to my shoulder, I panned the kitchen.
The heat signatures of the fish tanks showed blobs of dull yellow. I swung the Remington toward the cages, all of which glowed the cold, deep blue of inanimate space. I began going through the drawers and cabinets one by one, keeping the shotgun tucked in tight to my shoulder. Most of the windows in Keno’s place were either closed or boarded-up, and the confined air felt thick and rotten. Although distracting, it actually worked to my advantage since any sudden drops in temperature would tell me I was close before the TID picked up the white signature of perdition.
The kitchen was empty, though, the cabinets and drawers completely devoid of anything edible, and the fridge was empty, all of which set my nerves on edge. Harbingers were still human and had to eat.
I could hear Gerald rummaging and cursing down the hall. He didn’t need a TID for this part of the job, relying instead on a set of somatic protocols that were way beyond the primeval capacities of my parietal lobe. He sensed things, to be sure, but they were things that hid beneath the brambles of perceived reality, slipping between material space with a viscosity that defied the friction of the physical world. It was both a blessing and curse to have the second sight, and it was endowed only to those few whose moment of demise had collided with a converging moment of absolution and damnation. In Gerald’s case, that meant catching a bullet in the back of the head from a harbinger at the same moment a priest, whom he was about to murder, deposited the hostia on Gerald’s tongue and completed the liturgy. Sacrament and sacrifice. Gerald went to get saved that day and instead ended up in the morgue, where he woke up later that evening with a pounding headache and a new lease on life. Seems things worked out after all.
Oh, and the priest? That’s the mother fucker I’m looking for now. He’s just a little less priest-y at present.
I turned back toward the hallway to check on Gerald. “Gerald, how you . . .”
Keno was gone.
I guess that explained the empty kitchen. I brought the Remington up and began doing a slow, steady scan of the room with the TID. I was just about to move toward the back rooms to find Gerald when I felt the first wave of frigid air slither over my boots and coil around my ankles. “Gerald?” Nothing. “Gerald, you better fucking sound off!” I heard a dull thump and scraping, followed by a wet snap. The air was now coming in thick gouts, rolling over me in waves and setting my teeth to chattering. My breath condensed in the-half-light of the hallway, giving it a poisoned aspect. We called this the demon lung. I was very close.
I moved slowly toward the room at the end of the hall, where the door was ajar, the temperature steadily dropping as I crept along. The scraping continued at steady intervals and another wet pop sent a jolt through my fingertips and down into the pit of my stomach where it seethed like a hot piece of iron plunged into slack tub.
“Gerald.” The word tumbled out of my mouth like a broken tooth. I already knew there would be no answer.
I reached the door and was about to nudge it open with the muzzle of the shotgun when I saw the pair of size ten Chuck Taylors recede deeper into the room. In that moment the slab of smoldering fear in my gut hardened into anger and I smashed my boot into the door, which twisted off the top hinge and wedged itself into the adjoining wall. I stepped into the room, gun raised, just in time to see the soles of Gerald’s sneaker disappear past the forked tongue of an enormous serpent, its great tangled body filling the room. A pair of hot white gashes superimposed over the great Stygian coils so that they seemed to float in a sea of blue. Even in the cold, dim light of the airless space, I could make out the stretched lettering that flexed and roiled along the scaly body. Hierba mala nunca muere.