By Gail Z. Martin
The abandoned warehouse squatted next to a rusting railway spur, the faded paint of its sign almost unreadable against the old brick walls. Too sturdy to knock down, too expensive to gentrify, the decaying building smelled of mold and dust, rats…and blood.
Travis Dominick moved silently through the shadows, intent on his prey. Moonlight and the distant glow of streetlights filtered through the dirty windows and skylights, giving barely enough illumination for him to make his way.
He knew his quarry had gone to ground here. The ghosts told him so, and the vision that woke him in a cold sweat showed him where to look. With raven-dark hair and black clothing, Travis melted into the shadows.
There. He saw the creature’s matted brown coat as it eased around one of the pillars supporting the roof. In its beast form, the monster was the size of a large wolf or even a mastiff. But that’s where the likeness to any normal canine ended. The nachzehrer was a vampire-shifter, a plague-carrier, and it had murdered—and eaten—an entire family. Travis had come to put an end to its killing spree.
He pulled a silver knife from the bandolier across his chest and hurled it. It flew silently and sunk hilt-deep into the creature’s hindquarters. The beast gave a howl, not from the injury—which Travis knew wouldn’t be lethal—but from the shift the silver forced.
Sinew and slick muscle glistened as the dirty pelt stripped away into bloody ribbons, and the body reshaped itself when bones broke and knit with a disturbing snap and crunch. The monster hunched, no longer on all fours but not yet standing upright.
A burst of gunfire cut into the creature and pockmarked the pillar behind it—fast shots from an automatic weapon. The beast bellowed, bloodied but not seriously hurt.
Then the bullets weren’t silver. Fuck. There’s a newbie out there who thinks he’s Van Helsing.
Travis peered out from where he’d retreated with his back to one of the pillars. The creature shook off the last gory remnants of its fur. In the half-light, Travis made out the thing that had once been human, before it brought plague to its family and stripped their bones clean with the knife-sharp teeth of its changed form.
More shots tore into the monster’s head and body, but the creature did not collapse, needing more than steel to slay it. Then, with a burst of speed, it leaped into the shadows, intent on bringing down its assailant.
“Shit,” Travis muttered, taking off at a run. I could have done this the easy way, but no…some Buffy wanna-be has to fuck it all up.
Travis held a coiled silver whip in his left hand and a Glock with silver bullets in his right. Silver and steel knives of varying sizes filled the bandolier and hung from sheaths strapped to his belt. He had come prepared to destroy the monster. Now, he had to save the idiot who had gone looking for trouble—and found it.
The creature moved fast, leaping for its attacker with its teeth bared and its sharp claws out. A man cursed, and the beast yowled in pain. Travis closed in on the scene, to find a powerfully built, blond man going after the monster with a Ka-Bar in each hand. Every time Travis moved to line up a shot with the Glock, the combatants pivoted, putting the man squarely in his sights. As annoyed as he was at the interloper, Travis couldn’t justify shooting him.
The beast stood half a head taller than its opponent, but whoever the dipshit was who had blundered into Travis’s hunt, the guy knew how to fight. Travis might have answered to a different authority for his training, but he’d learned from some of the best, and he recognized the close-quarters moves as elite military, maybe special ops. So perhaps the fight was not as uneven as he had first suspected.
Travis circled, looking for an opening, figuring he and the mystery man could double-team the creature.
“Stay back! I’ve got this!” the blond man growled, slashing with the knife in his right hand and thrusting with the blade in his left.
Unless those knives were edged with blessed silver, Travis knew the other man could harry the creature all day without ever bringing it down.
“Get out of the way, and I’ll finish it,” Travis called back. He lashed out with the silver whip, flaying open a deep gash in the monster’s back. The beast jerked and turned, recognizing a second threat, but shifted its stance before Travis could get off a shot with the Glock, putting the man between them.
“I told you, I’ve got—” The reply broke off as the creature put on a press of speed, swiping its powerful clawed hand across the man’s shoulder and tossing him effortlessly through the air. The stranger hit one of the support pillars hard, but he staggered to his feet, ready for another round.
“Of all the stupid, asinine, fucking idiots,” Travis muttered as he tried to flank the creature, but although the beast remained intent on its injured quarry, it was clever enough not to expose its back to Travis.
The stranger didn’t wait for the beast to attack again. He came at it with kicks and punches in a flurry of expertly trained movement that would have had a human opponent down in seconds. The two long knives sank deep into the monster’s body, and the thing howled in fury and pain. It lunged, and claws tore into the fighter’s shoulder as the beast opened its maw and bared its fangs, lowering its head toward the struggling man’s throat.
Intent on fresh blood, the creature made a mistake. Travis dodged into position. He didn’t dare shoot into the back of the beast for fear the bullets would go through and hit the man. But three side shots would do nicely—head, chest, and hip.
The monster roared and tossed the man aside. This time, he did not get up. Travis faced the beast, putting a silver bullet between the creature’s eyes and through its heart. It fell to its knees, covered in its own blood and that of its would-be attacker, and leveled a baleful glare.
Angry red blisters criss-crossed the monster’s pale skin as the blessed silver worked its poison, fighting against the unholy energies that animated the beast. Travis reached for a flask on his belt and sloshed a measure of salted holy water into the creature’s ravaged face.
Travis raised a hand in blessing. “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, let there be extinguished in you all power of the devil.” He made the sign of the cross. “Through this holy unction may the Lord pardon thee whatever sins or faults thou hast committed.”
The nachzeher that had once been a man named Rick Kohrs collapsed in a bloody heap on the floor.
Travis doused the body with lighter fluid and tossed a match, watching the corpse go up in flames, assuring that it would not rise again. He ran to where the stranger lay, fearing what he might find. The man was pale but still breathing, bleeding from deep gashes where the beast had torn into him. Travis ripped strips of cloth from the man’s tattered shirt and field dressed the wounds, making it unlikely he would bleed out until Travis could get help.
Sirens wailed in the distance. Travis hefted the unconscious man over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry, and dumped him into the back of his small black SUV, pulling away before the first of the fire trucks reached the scene.
He toggled hands-free dialing, and the call rang through. “Have Matthew standing by. I’m bringing in a casualty.”
“You’re bringing someone here?” Jon sounded incredulous. “Are you sure—”
“He’s not dying, but he’s banged up pretty bad,” Travis said, trying not to be snappish despite the adrenaline crash. “And before we let go of him, I want to know what the hell he thought he was doing playing monster hunter.”
St. Dismas Outreach took up a hard-worn former apartment building off Wylie Avenue in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, a down-on-its-luck neighborhood not far from center city. Aptly named for the believing thief on the cross, St. Dismas was—as far as most people were aware—a halfway house, soup kitchen, food bank, and shelter, a last chance outpost for the tired souls who found refuge there. Fewer knew that forays like tonight’s battle were equally a part of its vital, if secretive, mission.
Travis pulled the SUV up to the back door. Matthew and Jon came out to meet him, gentling the wounded stranger onto a stretcher and hustling him into the building before Travis had released his seatbelt. He got out of the car and glanced both directions. Before they had opened St. Dismas, being in an alley in this part of town in the middle of the night would have been asking for trouble. Travis had been no more willing to put up with human monsters than the kinds of creatures he hunted. It didn’t take long for word to spread that hassling the folks at St. Dismas wasn’t worth the grief.
Jon met him in the hallway. “What happened?” Jon was Travis’s second in command, and one of the few entrusted to the knowledge of Travis’s past and his nighttime hunts. They were a study in distinctions. At thirty-three and six-foot-two, Travis was solid, lean muscle, with chin-length black hair and green eyes that were in sharp contrast to the pale coloring of his Irish heritage. Jon was five-ten and forty-something, built like a fireplug, with close-cropped dark hair, wary eyes, and skin the color of espresso. Jon had been an Army chaplain before St. Dismas, and Matthew, who had disappeared with their visitor, had been a medic. Their skills still came in handy on nights like this, far too often for Travis’s liking.
Travis recounted the mucked-up hunt as they walked to his small apartment on the third floor. “So you have no idea who this guy is?” Jon asked, pausing at the door.
“Trouble, that’s what he is,” Travis replied wearily. “And dangerous. He knew how to fight, just not how to fight a nachzehrer. Navy SEAL maybe, or one of the other Special Ops.”
“I saw the guns and the knives. Impressive.”
Travis gave a snort in reply. “And it did him so much good. I need to make sure he learns from his mistake and leaves things alone that he doesn’t understand.”
“He’s gonna know about you when he wakes up, and he’ll connect you and St. Dismas—”
“And I know about him, too,” Travis replied. “I’ll bet my ‘day job’ is more understanding than his.”
Jon chuckled at the understatement. “Yeah. True. All right. I’ve got the front covered. Go be Batman.”
“Hardly. How’s the night going?” Travis asked, shifting into work mode.
“Typical. We’ve got more people than usual for overnight, but that’s probably on account of the rain. The soup kitchen was scraping the bottom of the kettles, but we took care of everyone,” Jon reported. “Broke up a fight between a couple of guys who were too high to be able to tell us what they were actually arguing about,” he added, shaking his head. “You know. The usual.” He paused. “On the other hand, the group therapy session with the halfway house residents went really well. So there’s that.”
St. Dismas served a tough part of town. While the “Steel City” had remade itself with software and technology industries after much of its manufacturing went elsewhere, not everyone could make the leap. Travis often wondered how many of the men who sought refuge here would have been just fine in the days when a millworker could earn enough for a nice house, a decent car, and retirement in Florida. Nothing in their reach paid like that now, or ever would again.
“Good,” Travis said, clapping Jon on the shoulder. “Then I’ll go see to our new guest. I wouldn’t mind having one of those flashy-thingies like in that movie, to make him forget.”
“You sure your connections don’t have something? They always have the good stuff,” Jon joked.
Travis sighed. “I doubt it. If people forgot what they did, why would they need to go to Confession? It would put priests out of jobs, and they can’t have that.”
Jon left, chuckling, while Travis headed back toward the clinic where his unexpected guest would be recovering. It had taken three years for him to be able to joke about the priesthood, after making his decision to leave behind it and the secret Vatican order of demon-hunters that had nearly cost him his life, his faith, and his sanity. The Sinistram reported to Cardinal Vasylyk, one step away from the Pope himself, and its very name implied its role, the “left hand” of the Holy Father, fighting things too terrible to acknowledge. Those among the Cardinals who did not approve had another name for the elite warrior-priests: Filios Tenebrarum. The Sons of Darkness.
Right now, what mattered to Travis was finding out where the hell this stranger had come from, and how it was that the man even knew about threats like the nachzehrer. Travis hoped to be able to dissuade their “guest” from going looking for more trouble, but he doubted that would be easy.
He reached the clinic just as Matthew closed the door behind him. “How is he?” Travis asked, worried about the stranger despite being annoyed that the man had put himself in harm’s way.
“Banged up, but not too badly,” Matthew replied. “He’s gonna be sore, and I had to close up the worst of the gashes with stitches, but considering the alternatives, he’s a pretty lucky guy.”
Travis gave a snort. “What’s the saying? That God looks after fools and drunkards?”
He heard a voice shout from behind the door. Matthew gave him a look. “Well, that particular ‘fool’ is demanding to know what’s going on. He wants to talk to the boss man, and that’s you.”
Travis grimaced and rolled his eyes. “This should be fun,” he muttered and shouldered past Matthew to enter the room.
“Who are you, and where the hell am I?”
Travis got his first good look at their houseguest in the harsh light of the clinic. It had been too dark in the warehouse to see much, and the nachzehrer had kept his attention occupied elsewhere. The man sitting on the edge of the clinic bed looked to be in his early thirties, with short blond hair and a muscular build that suggested boot camp rather than gym rat. The haircut said “civilian,” but the way the man sat, poised to spring at the first sign of threat said “military.”
“My name is Travis Dominick, and you’re at the St. Dismas Center.”
The stranger gave Travis a glare. “The homeless shelter?”
Travis shrugged. “That, and more.” He took in the set of the man’s chin, and the fire in his blue eyes, anger covering fear. “Who are you?”
The newcomer remained silent long enough that Travis began to doubt he would answer. “Brent Lawson,” he said finally. “And don’t get me wrong, I appreciate what you did, saving my ass, but why the fuck were you there?”
A side effect of giving up the clerical collar was that people stopped watching their language around him, Travis thought. The upside was that they now treated him like a human being, in all its messy glory. “Why were you?” he countered.
They glared at each other, and Travis was reminded of staring matches back in middle school. Finally, Brent chuffed out a breath and looked away. “I tracked that thing to its lair. But I had bad intel, and the weapons I had didn’t work.”
“I noticed,” Travis replied. “A nachzehrer is a vampire shifter. You needed silver to kill it, and nothing short of a head shot, decapitation, and then burning would do it.”
Brent gave him an appraising look. “And you know this, how?”
“Training,” Travis replied with a maddening smile. “But you still haven’t told me how you ended up tracking a monster to a warehouse.”
“It’s what I do,” Brent said after a moment. “At least, it’s part of what I do.” He glanced around. “Looks like you’re in the part-time monster hunting business, too.”
Having been a full-time hunter with the Sinistram, Travis was quite content to be “part-time,” although he couldn’t tell Brent that. “You would have died back there.”
“I said ‘thank you.’” Brent’s eyes narrowed.
Travis leaned back against the wall. “You really need to leave this kind of thing to people who’ve been trained for it.”
“Like you, Father Dominick?”
Brent couldn’t have known about Travis’s past, but the barb still made him wince. “I’m not a priest. Not anymore,” he said quietly.
Brent frowned, then managed to look contrite. “Sorry. I thought priests only went monster hunting in the movies.”
“And I thought soldiers didn’t go freelance.”
This time, Brent flinched. “Yeah, well. I’m out now. I have my own detective firm.”
“And someone hired you to look into the family’s deaths?” Travis guessed.
Brent nodded. “Yeah. A brother from out of town. When I put the pieces together, I knew it wasn’t something the cops would ever believe. So I decided to handle it on my own.”
Travis tried to unpack that statement because there was as much not said as what Brent admitted. “The cops wouldn’t believe a monster killed those people, but you did?”
“Apparently, so did you.”
Travis was in no mood to explain his past, and from the look of it, neither was Brent. “So the nachzehrer is dead, and the family is avenged,” Travis said, trying to defuse the stubborn glint in Brent’s gaze. “Now you can go back to busting Worker’s Comp fraud and finding cheating spouses. Or tracking mobsters.”
“Fuck you,” Brent said, sliding down off the table and reaching for his shirt. His face and shoulder were already starting to bruise from where the creature had thrown him around, and despite the stitches, the wounds looked sore and puffy. There were older scars, too. Two that looked like bullet wounds, but others that might have been from knives, teeth, or claws. Travis had similar scars, knew what made marks like that. It lent credence to Brent’s claims that he wasn’t new at this.
“It’s the middle of the night,” Travis replied, ignoring the outburst. “You’re welcome to stay. Matthew would probably like to check on your stitches in the morning. Those claws can carry taint.”
“Not my first rodeo.” Brent grimaced as he moved to pull on his shirt. “Thanks for the assist, and the medic. But I need to get home.”
“You almost died out there,” Travis said, blocking his way.
“And I’m glad you were there,” Brent said evenly. “But I’ve been at this for a while now, and it’s like any battle—you win some, you lose some. Every fight might be the last. Goes with the territory.”
Travis reached into a pocket of his tactical vest and pulled out a card. “Look, the next time you hear of something like this, how about giving me a call? If I can’t talk you out of going after it, maybe we team up? Safety in numbers?”
Brent scowled, staring at the card as if debating whether to accept it, then finally snatched it from Travis’s fingers and shoved it into his jeans. “Yeah. Maybe. Depends.” He moved around Travis. “I’d give you my card, but why bother? You think you’ve got it all figured out.” With that, Brent walked out and headed down the hallway, to the rear exit and into the night.
Matthew returned to the clinic before Travis could leave. “Did you talk him out of a repeat performance?”
Travis shook his head. “Nope. And I believed him when he said he’s done it before. Hell, maybe ‘Special Ops’ goes after creatures like this, for all we know. Not like they’d tell civilians.”
“Then it’s out of your hands,” Matthew said. “Maybe, with luck, he’ll decide it’s a bad business, and you’ll never run into him again.”
Travis stared down the empty corridor at the back door. “I doubt that. I wonder what his story is. No one starts hunting monsters for fun,” he said quietly. “They lose someone. It’s always personal.”