Excerpt from Grave Voices

New Pittsburgh, 1898

Excerpt from Part One: Monsters


“The streets of New Pittsburgh aren’t safe for decent people anymore!” The speaker shouted as he strode back and forth the steps to the courthouse. He had built up a sweat that made his shirt cling to his muscled body. A crowd gathered, muttering their agreement as he spoke. The hand-lettered sign leaning against the bottom step proclaimed ‘Edmund Luss, Monster Hunter’. Nearby, a reporter was busy scribbling notes on a tablet as a photographer’s flash powder made the crowd blink when he took a photo.

“It’s not bad enough that the pickpockets and petty thieves lurk down the alleys, preying on hard-working men and women!” the man added, and the crowd nodded. “Not bad enough that feral dogs snatch meat from butchers’ carts and fresh fish from the fishmonger. But now, there’s a new horror—the police are too afraid to admit it’s lurking out there—and ladies and gentlemen, you know I’m telling the truth because you’ve heard it from your friends and neighbors. There are monsters, monsters I say, roaming the dark alleys of New Pittsburgh and I am here to drive them back to the fires of Hell where they belong!”

A cry went up from the crowd, cheering and whistling. The speaker stood triumphantly with his hands on his hips, letting the crowd go wild.

“Can you do it? Can you send the monsters away for good?” a man in the front of the crowd shouted.

“How do we know you’ve actually fought real monsters?” a skeptic asked.

The speaker nodded as if he had anticipated the questions. “To the first question—yes! I can do it. I can rid New Pittsburgh of the monster scourge. And to the second question—very wise, very prudent of you, sir, to be so careful—again I say yes! I have fought real, actual monsters. Fought them with my bare hands and with weapons too terrible to mention, in fights I cannot describe with ladies present! But I can show you—the monsters gave me these!” And with that, he stepped closer to the crowd and held out both arms to show long, jagged scars that might have been made by the claws of a beast.

“That’s how close I got to the monsters! That’s how I know that I can defeat those terrifying beasts! And ladies and gentlemen, I came away with the best of the deal by far! Because while I will bear the scars of those monsters until my dying day, I dealt out unwavering justice to those infernal, abominable creatures. Behold!” And with a flourish, he held up a black, shaggy pelt matted in places by what might have been blood.

The crowd gasped. Two women in the back swooned, and might have fallen had their companions not eased them to a seat on the stone courthouse steps, where they fanned themselves until someone went to fetch them water.

“Don’t let the evidence alarm you!” the speaker cried, working the crowd to a frenzied pitch. “I am willing to take the on risks of hunting these beasts, these monsters, in order to guarantee the safety of the good people of New Pittsburgh!”

The crowd went wild once again, cheering, screaming, and stomping their approval. “When can you start?” a man yelled.

The monster hunter shrugged. “That all depends on the vote by your City Council,” he said. “I have given them my modest proposal, modest indeed considering the great risk of bodily harm involved. They are considering that proposal as we speak, weighing the safety of the people of New Pittsburgh against the paltry sum I request to exterminate, once and for all, the monstrous vermin that prowl the streets of this fine town. They may be waiting to hear from the people of the city. So if you want me to drive out the monsters, if you want to sleep secure in your beds at night and rest assured that your children and your wives can go about their business without harm, if you want peace and safety for the city of New Pittsburgh, then I ask you, I beg of you, let your voices be heard!”

The resulting racket was impressive. Men and women shouted their assent, and some waved fists in the air for good measure. Ear-splitting whistles echoed down Grant Street along with thunderous applause. The monster hunter stood silently, hands clasped in front of him, just the hint of a satisfied smile touching his lips.

He did not seem to notice the three people watching his rally from across the street. Mitch Storm, Jacob Drangosavich, and Della Kennedy stood where they could hear what the monster hunter was shouting to the crowd, and observe both him and his audience.

“That’s him,” Mitch said. “Edmund Luss, aka Edward Lustig. Con man, snake oil salesman, huckster extraordinaire.”

“Do we nab him?” Jacob raised an eyebrow.

Mitch shook his head. “He hasn’t done anything illegal—yet. Although I’d bet anything that ‘monster’ pelt is just a dyed goat skin, or maybe monkey fur.”

“Interesting timing for his little rally,” Della said. “Nice way to let the Council know he’s got supporters—and make it uncomfortable for them to turn him down, no matter what fee he’s charging.”

Mitch nodded. “Lucky for them, we’re here.” He turned to go. “We’ve seen enough. Time to plan a little ‘monster hunt’ of our own.”

A few blocks down Grant Street, a street preacher stood on an overturned fruit crate. “The end of the world is nigh!” he proclaimed with fevered passion. “Monsters roam among us. Surely that is a sign of the end of the world!” The preacher had gathered almost as large a crowd as the monster hunter, and more people continued to join the group as the man’s voice rose. He was dressed better than the monster hunter, with a vest over slacks and a starched white shirt, and he waved a worn Bible in one hand as he shouted to the crowd.

“Monsters! Demons! Abominations! Right here in New Pittsburgh, come to kill our children and taint our souls!” He had worked up a sweat, and mopped his brow with a handkerchief. “But we can fight that evil! Yes, we can. Do you believe that we can fight the evil?”

The solemn crowd nodded, and a few ‘amens’ sounded from the gathering. Mitch, Della, and Jacob drifted closer, and Mitch’s eyes narrowed. Jacob bet his partner was thinking the same thing: that the two speakers were very likely working together. That suspicion grew stronger when he saw the table of patent medicine bottles and protective medallions next to the street preacher’s make-shift stage. The name painted on to the suitcase displaying the items for sale read ‘Reverend Joe Sherril’.

“The Lord can save your soul, and I can save your life,” the preacher continued. “The Lord has sent us a warrior, sent us Edmund Luss, a fearless man who can hunt down the abominations and drive them from our city. But he has also given me a vision, a vision that may save your lives.” He turned toward the bottles and medallions on the table.

“The Good Lord helps them who help themselves,” Sherril continued. “Now we’re not all called to fight monsters. But you can protect yourself, your loved ones, even your horses and pets with these fine items.” He lifted one of the bottles, and the liquid inside was the color of pond scum.

“I received a message in a dream to protect the good people of New Pittsburgh with these potions and medals,” Sherril continued, eyes alight. “These medals have been blessed by every type of church in this city. They are inscribed with a prayer in Latin that drives away monsters. If you wear one of these, no monster will come within five feet of you,” he promised.

“What do the potions do?” someone called from the crowd.

“I’m glad you asked!” Sherril said. “These fine potions and elixirs let you protect your house, your chicken coop, your garden, and carriage shed from the unholy monsters terrorizing our city.”

He clutched one hand over his heart. “I’m not here to make money from misfortune. No, indeed. That’s why the price is so very low. I am here in the interest of public safety, doing the work of the Lord,” he added with a brief glance skyward. “But I have to tell you, these are the last bottles and medals available.”

At that, the crowd surged forward. “I want one!” a voice cried

“Give me two of each!” someone else yelled.

“Hey, one to a customer!” another person protested. The onlookers surged forward, throwing coins and bills at Sherril as they nearly trampled each other to get the bottles and medals.

“Pretty slick,” Della observed, as they watched from a distance. “Think he and the monster hunter are in it together?”

Mitch nodded. “Certain. ‘Reverend Sherril’ is a fake. That’s Shifty Joe Shurlman. He’s as much of a con man as Lustig. But if we bust him, Lustig will know we’re on to them. Let’s go.”