20
Apr
18

Backlog

 

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“Man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” Or so Robert Browning once said. Sometimes I doubt that wisdom, though.

I was thinking of that this morning as I gazed over the pile of books, movies and video games that have accrued while I’ve laid about the living room waiting for the ability to walk and talk properly to return. I accrued quite the haul, and that’s not even including the stuff that was already backlogged before it happened.

At last count, there are 27 video games, eight paperback novels, 18 Kindle downloads, three television series, one streaming-only series and six movies that await consumption. Some of those go back a year (or more), and all of them carry with them the faint whiff of guilt.

“I know I shouldn’t buy that. I have tons of other things I need to get to.” But I can’t help myself. (It’s only getting worse today, as God of War launches.) I know I’ll get to them… eventually. There will be some dry spot where either there is nothing new and interesting for me to fixate on or I lack the resources to obtain them, and then I’ll start sorting it out, but staring down the pile and wondering when that will happen leads to a giant blow from the “oh crap” hammer of despair.

It’s probably a weird thing to worry about, but I do. I suppose its time for some goal setting; by next week I’ll have finished Devil May Cry HD, read through Sleeping Beauties and PorterGirl, and watched all of the current season of National Treasure.

Sure I will. I’ll also finish Believe Me in that time, cure cancer and learn to exist entirely without sleep or food. Who knows? Still, it’s a place to start. I might actually at least make it through those two books, since I have a fully functioning iPad again. Fingers crossed.

What about you folks? Have media that must be consumed but that somehow hasn’t made it to the top of the stack, especially when you keep making the stack bigger? How do you feel about it? What’s next to tackle in the Everest of a backlog? Let us know down below!

KA Spiral no signature

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19
Apr
18

Tools

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There is always a need for tools to get a job done. No matter the job, like Apple’s app store, “there’s a tool for that!”

But how much of the work is the tool responsible for? Specifically in a creative endeavor. Does it matter if you’re working with a scrap of paper and a Bic pen, or a Pixar-level Mac Pro or something in between, or can the same work be done with anything?

I’m inclined to believe the former. To some extent, the tools inform the work. The method by which something is done seems like the sort of thing that would bleed in, like a lot of external stimuli. Or maybe that’s just me. But I don’t think so.

George R. R. Martin insists in hacking away on a decrepit copy of WordStar – though I don’t know if he uses the truly relic-worthy Commodore 64 version – and Stephen King claims to have written Dreamcatcher on “one of the finest writing tools,” a Waterman fountain pen. George’s work – to me, at least – frequently feels reptilian, neolithic, a relic of an older era where the lizard brain and the id were in charge. Dreamcatcher was long, pretty and frequently, pretentious. But that’s just my opinion.

I can see it in my own work; if something was written longhand, it tends to be quick and terse. Probably because it hurts like hell to hold a pen for any length of time, and my handwriting is almost illegible after twenty minutes or so. If I take to the tablet, I’m liable to be fairly wordy, but stick to short words and avoid made up ones. Fighting with cursor positioning and Siri being overly insistent with the autocorrect just isn’t my idea of a good time. Move to the desktop? My full vocabulary might is unleashed… much to some folks’ dismay, I’m sure.

What about you folks out there? Do your tools change the final work, or do you think it’s all hogwash? Let us know down below!

18
Apr
18

Come Crawling Back

In theory, the last of the medical issues are on the way out at last. Of course, one has thought that before, but have to keep the fingers crossed, I suppose.

Of course, that leads to other problems. I’m sure other creative types have had similar issues; disruption of a good creative run seems to inevitably make returning to that run harder. The longer it goes on, the more times you tell yourself “I’m not quite ready yet,” the easier it is to push back being “ready,” whatever that means. It gets harder and harder to drag yourself back to the keys – or the canvas, or the instrument – and push forward. “It’s already been so long,” you say. “What does another day or two matter?”

Quite a lot, it seems. But I’ve managed. While it isn’t groundbreaking work, I have at least made it approximately halfway through the next chunk of “Riptide,” slogged through preparing and posting this, and have the raw footage for my next video post. That will go up soon, once I remember how to use Premiere.

In other fun news, my old iPad – affectionately referred to as Cyber Dracula MK-II, after a book I really intend to finish one day – has been retired and replaced, and Yakuza 6 came out, so I am torn between the task of getting all my apps and such up to date and disco-stomping stern-faced Japanese men in garish suits. Neither of which should really be distracting, but being unable to speak, chew, or even close my mouth and being crippled with a procrastination-induced guilt when I glance at a keyboard, one does what one can.

Hopefully those of you out there are doing better. Regular posting should resume from this point forward. Take care, folks.

KA Spiral no signature

27
Mar
18

Gaming Roundup

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Since I’ve been essentially in limbo for a month or so, it has given me time to catch up on my gaming; I would still rather be at work, either in front of these keys or at my desk in my office, but it kept the brain turned on to some degree, at least.

I’m not really feeling a huge in-depth review of everything I’ve played, but a quick speedrun through the hits and misses is in order. So here we go.

Kirby Star Allies (Switch) – It’s Kirby. At this late date, you should know whether you enjoy Kirby games or not. It doesn’t do anything amazingly new and shocking and doesn’t screw up the existing formula. I enjoy it.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (Switch) – Not quite what I was expecting – having heard it billed as an action RPG and bearing some of Star Ocean‘s DNA, I thought battles would be a little more hands-on, rather than staring at little bars and waiting for them to fill before I push a button once in a while – but still enjoyable. It consistently ticks off every checkbox in the “anime-style JRPG cliche” list, but is occasionally self-aware of it at least, is very pretty, and has some seriously deep customization, crafting, and level-up systems in place. Very worthwhile.

The Evil Within 2 (PS4) – I know, I know, it’s old and all. I’ve been picking at it for months, but I finally got to finish it. Found it enjoyable, suitably tense at moments (though it’s not kicking Outlast or Resident Evil 7 out of the “scariest games” slots) and a definite improvement over its predecessor. The main issue I had here was realizing the game isn’t trying to be Resident Evil 4, and playing it that way will get you killed (at least on the higher difficulties.) Playing it like a horror-themed Metal Gear or Splinter Cell, however, made it much more entertaining and enjoyable. At least until the last couple of chapters, where it turns into a shooting gallery for no reason. And the last boss made Ruvik seem well-designed – which he certainly wasn’t, in my opinion. Still, good game and seems to be half-off most places at this point, so give it a poke.

Devil May Cry HD Collection (PS4) – To be fair to it, it is hard to come down from Bayonetta 2, which basically perfected all the things DMC set out to do, but the DMC Collection still feels like a dumpster fire. The controls are clunky – which they kind of were to start with, though I don’t remember having this much trouble with them when I played the collection on PS3 – but at least somewhat forgivable given the age of the games.

What isn’t forgivable, however, are the graphics. I’m not a graphics whore (as something a little later in the list will prove), and normally I can’t even tell what resolution or frame rate something is running in unless it’s obviously broken. But DMC Collection looks like ass. It’s grainy, it stutters, and the resolution or aspect ratio seems to be “off” somehow. What’s odd to me is that I played the PS3 version on the same television and it didn’t seem to have this problem… seriously, what the hell, Capcom? But if you crave the games and don’t have a PS2 or PS3 around to play those versions, it’ll do. Or you can just hop over to Switch and play Bayonetta

Prey (PS4) – It’s BioShock in space. I love it. If you like BioShock, play this. If you didn’t like BioShock, you probably won’t like this. If you somehow didn’t ever play BioShock, you can grab the collection cheap, and Prey is usually around $15 these days, so grab one, try it out, then grab the other. You’re welcome.

Dissidia: Final Fantasy NT (PS4) – It’s hard to describe these; they’re sort of like strategy fighting games, I guess? I had some fun with the first two back on the PSP, and was pretty excited for this one, but having played it I kinda feel “meh” to it. It’s okay, I guess, but it feels a lot clunkier than its predecessors, the AI is set to ridiculous levels, there’s not really a story mode, and the online community is almost nonexistent or full of elitists, so if you actually do manage to get in a match, you’ll have waited probably five to ten minutes followed by a swift booting or disconnect. Maybe it’ll pick up. I hope so.

Metal Gear Survive (PS4) – Everyone’s ripping on this game, and it’s kind of silly, really. Is the game a great Metal Gear? No. Is it still a very entertaining blend of Dark Souls and Don’t Starve? Yes, it is. At least to me. I really think 95% of the hate this game gets is because of the name on the box, and if it said anything else on there but Metal Gear, it’d be doing just fine. It does take a while to warm up, so if you check it out, at least try to get through all the tutorial/sample missions – to where you can actually start building your base – to get a real idea of how it works and thinks. If you’re not into a slow burn that’s much more interested in mechanics than sensible storytelling, look elsewhere.

Mass Effect: Andromeda (XB1) – I kinda like it. I know that makes me a pariah, but you have to consider that I’m getting to it a year late and after tons of patches. I also didn’t think Mass Effect 2 was the best game ever. I enjoyed Mass Effect, I merely tolerated 2. Didn’t play 3Andromeda, to me, is equally enjoyable as the first game. It’s got problems, but I have fun with it. I do kinda miss the Paragon/Renegade system, though I see what they were trying to do by stripping it; we’ll see if a more nuanced approach bears fruit later in the game (I’m not terribly far, yet; just got the first colony up and running.)

NHL 18 (XB1) – I play sports games rarely. When I do play them, I usually grab a hockey or boxing game about every four years or so. I traded in my NHL 15 for 18, and… kinda wish I hadn’t. I’m sure I’ll warm up to it in time (and if not, I can reclaim 15 for about $5), but it feels like they made some very wonky changes to the controls and the AI. I like the training camp setup, though. We’ll see how I feel after a few more matches.

Deadly Premonition (XB360) – Yes, it’s old. Yes, it’s ugly. Yes, it’s clunky as hell. But it has charm and is more complex than most people give it credit for. It recently became backwards compatible for XB1, so I of course had to instantly locate a copy and hook back up with my buddy Agent Francis York Morgan for  a psychic-coffee fueled trip to Greenvale, which is totally not Twin Peaks and Resident Evil‘s lovechild. I wish they’d reissue the Director’s Cut version for Xbox, or maybe remaster it for PS4/XB1, but I’ll take what I can get.

Quite the list. Messy. Wall of texty. Oh well. Have opinions on any of these titles, or games you’ve been poking at lately that are worth a look? Let us know down below!

Until next time!

KA Spiral no signature

27
Mar
18

Dentures, Drugs, and Dreams, Mark 2

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I said there were two massively weird dreams screwing up the sleep schedule last time. Here’s the other.

I’m at the window, staring down into the parking lot. A cab pulls up. One of the old school, yellow checker style ones. Someone steps out; hard to make out anything about them other than it’s male, tall and gangly.

He’s wearing a tan beret and a beige overcoat. I see him tilt his head up and glance at the window I’m watching him from while he rummages in his pocket to pay the cabbie. Somehow I know he’s staring at me, and that he’s come for me.

I back away, feeling like someone just reached into my chest and squeezed my heart. I hear footsteps on the stairs outside the apartment and I know the tread. The weight behind them, the pace; I know who’s coming up the stairs, and I react with no surprise but plenty of pants-wetting fear when the doorbell rings. My legs are rubber, my mouth dry, but I can’t stop myself. I go to the door and open it.

It’s him. Of course it is. I should have known when I saw the cab, or the beret. It can’t be him, it’s impossible – he’s been dead for a decade – but it is anyway.

My grandfather is standing in my doorway, though death has been kinder to him than living has been to me. His hair is thick and black instead of thin and steel grey; his eyes are a sharp and piercing, unclouded by glaucoma or retinal surgery or ridiculously thick bifocals. The lines in his face have mostly smoothed out, except the deep creases of frown lines to either side of his jaw, the ones that always made me think of a ventriloquist’s dummy.

He looks like he must have a long time ago when he and my grandmother first met. I remember seeing a picture of him like this, back when I was a kid. Probably why I’ve dressed him this way – the beret gives it away. It used to hang in the hallway of grandma’s house, a relic of him when he might have still known how to smile or take a joke.

But he’s not smiling now. He shoves me back and marches into the house, slamming the door with a sound like a vault or a tomb locking. In the way dreams do, there is no clear divide or sense of order to things, now. Only that he’s yelling at me, and he’s furious.

So am I.

His complaint seems to be that I didn’t buy a Christmas tree for him. I have no idea what relation that has to anything. But he says, repeatedly, that he can’t believe I couldn’t even chip in $8 (the specific amount is also odd to me) for the holidays. The berating continues, but there’s no sense to it. Either I don’t remember what the other complaints were or there weren’t any other specifics and it’s just one of those dream moments where you know things are/have happening/happened but you couldn’t say how you know it.

I’m getting angrier and angrier, and finally, I start shouting at him. I call him a southern-fried son of a bitch. I tell him that it isn’t fair he blames his failures, fear, and procrastination on his family, no matter how fucked up they might have been. I tell him to get the fuck out of my house and go be dead somewhere else.

He sits down in a chair, and I realize the apartment isn’t the layout I live in, now. It’s been changed to grandma’s house and we’re in the kitchen – his kitchen – while he’s taken residence in a half-busted rocking chair that was always in the corner somewhere in the house. He smiles at me, though there is no love, happiness, or actual mirth in it. His teeth are shockingly white and obviously real, not the poor plastic things he wore for the last few decades of his life.

“Make it a threat, maybe I will.” His voice isn’t young again, I realize. It’s still the voice of a 60-year smoker with every drop of venom I remember from my childhood in it.

“Get out,” I tell him. He starts pawing at the air in front of him with his left hand, snorting. He’s doing a bull impression.

“Threaten me,” he tells me again. “Go ahead and do it you little snot-nosed bastard.”

“Get the fuck out of my house, you Kentucky Fried, ignorant, stupid, useless, worthless, gutless old fuck or I’ll…”

I’ll what? I don’t know. I know the dream paused there like it was giving me a chance to come up with something really good. But all the threats I could think of sounded pathetic, the whinging of some little millennial gothling tripping on their own angsty agony and talking about what they were going to do to their bullies. His grin kept getting wider, and I kept getting angrier, and the angrier I got the more stupid and juvenile the potential threats became.

I think I came up with a good one. I don’t remember what it was. I was about to tell him so – and probably be murdered by him for uttering it, assuming the insults I hurled beforehand didn’t push him over the edge – but then I woke up.

Fun stuff, right? At least I’m done with the pain meds, now. Hopefully this cuts the dreams back to my usual recurring nightmares and insomnia. I’m getting pretty sick of this shit.

Until next time.

KA Spiral no signature

25
Mar
18

Dentures, Drugs, and Dreams

I’ve been away for a bit, as I’m sure some of you have noticed. It wasn’t intentional by any means. I was doing so well, too; managed to write every day for almost two months straight.

But life happens, as everyone is aware. First it looked like the pneumonia might be coming back; then there was the possibility it was mono. But the real culprit to being deathly ill for nearly a month?

Severe infection in the jaw. Guess what the cure was?

Well, if you said “yank all your top teeth out,” you win a prize. I don’t know what that prize is, yet, but I’m sure I’ll think of something. I have access to the teeth… I suppose I could give you some of those, if you wanted… but only if you promise not to use them as DNA evidence to frame me for something or cast any voodoo on me. On second thought, maybe not. Might be kinda gross.

So, due to that, I haven’t really been able to eat or talk for almost a month. The pain medication they gave me also makes it almost impossible to focus and screws up my sleep – to say nothing of the near-constant nausea – so I don’t get much of interest done. It also tends to mess with my dreams, so I’ll just share a couple of those for now. Maybe someone else can decode them or will find them of interest.

In the first, for some reason I’m trying to convince a motivational speaker to come and give a lecture to teenagers at a church. The church is First Christian Church, one I was familiar with back in Carson City, though in the dream it has been abandoned and shuttered. I technically don’t have rights to use it or access to it, but for some reason it’s very important that I convince this person that I do.

I get there, and have no problem getting in, though the vestibule is filled with broken appliances. My guest speaker doesn’t seem to mind, merely asking questions about the congregation and how soon the building will be ready. I give him vague answers and wander further in.

The inside of the church turns out to be an ultra posh casino, and the priest’s quarters are like a penthouse apartment. The owner is, for some reason, the “Earl and Vicar of Brunswick.” Yeah, I dunno what that’s about, either. He’s old, and in the way you know things in dreams, I know he has a son, and they had a falling out. The falling out was because the Earl/Vicar and his son were playing a bit of wife swapping that didn’t end well.

That wasn’t the only swapping going on, though; they were also swapping faces, peeling them off and slapping on whatever they wanted. He wanted to bequeath the church/casino/penthouse to me for some reason. Again, in the way you know things, I knew this wasn’t actually the Vicar, but his son; they’d swapped and the actual Vicar was off galavanting with that youthful visage. Not sure why that would work – in the dream it seemed like they were just switching faces, but it seemed like that also made them immortal for some reason – and this fake Vicar wanted to will everything to me then swap with my face and take it all back. Despite knowing that, I still agreed.

That’s where the dream ended. I have no idea what it means.

I know I said there were two, but this has gone on for a bit and I’m not feeling so hot. I’ll share the other in a bit.

Until next time.

07
Mar
18

Concordat of Lashan: Old Dead Things

Having posted so much Lashan related stuff in the last few days, I felt like resharing one of my short stories. It doesn’t directly deal with them – though the upir in the story are definitely vampires or a sort – but “Old Dead Things” occurs in the same universe as the Concordat, and Gregory Perron will be showing up again on this site soon, so figured it would serve as a nice introduction. (You know, whenever I finally finish with “Riptide,” which will be soon, I swear.) Enjoy!

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“Bah! You come here, looking for Soldano? You not find him here, cop.”

The old man chuffed laughter alongside a cloud of pungent tobacco smoke, shaking his head and flapping his hand at me. At the table before him was a checkerboard, a game half-finished, though no other player was in evidence. Red was winning.

I didn’t have much interest in the game. It was none of my business. Dmitri Szgany, and what he might know about Soldano, that certainly was. I rolled my shoulders, letting the door slip shut behind me as I walked towards the splintered table he’d set his game board on. His rheumy brown eyes tracked me with only vague interest, peering through the cloud of smog his pipe was putting out.

“Looks like you’re losing, old man. What makes you think I’m a cop?”

The question wasn’t actually of interest to me, but I hoped it’d get him talking. Besides, he wasn’t entirely wrong. I was a cop. Until three weeks ago, anyway.

He laughed again, gesturing at the fire-sale salvaged chair across from him. “Am I? Strategy, friend, strategy. Hitler thought the motherland was losing, too, until he roll in with his tanks in middle of winter! Hah!” This time, the laugh turned into a wracking cough, prompting Szgany to hawk an unpleasantly crimson wad into a wastebasket to his left. “But you. You look like cop. Smell like cop. Besides, only cops ask questions about Soldano.”

He picked up a black marker and hopped it nimbly over one of the red, seemingly unaware that he had lined up four pieces that could be taken. Smirking to myself, I picked up a piece and made my own move, taking all the exposed chips.

“Fair enough. Doesn’t change the question. Where is he?”

The old man stared down at the board for a moment. He leaned back in his chair, taking another long drag on his pipe. I felt his eyes crawling over me, studying me, assessing me. Maybe he was just taking his time contemplating his next move – not that he really had many options given his previous blunder – but I thought he was actually debating on what to tell.

“You know, Soldano, he is not a man. He is monster. You know the things he has done?”

His voice, previously strong and reasonably friendly – if a bit gruff – quavered a bit. For a moment I saw my mother in him, her shrewish, fearful voice always warning of the things that could happen if Sascha and I weren’t in before dark, or quizzing us on every planned activity, searching for the dangers inherent to it.

Taking a deep breath and pushing the uncomfortable comparison away, I shrugged at him, turning my gaze to the board. “I know some. That’s why I’m looking for him.”

He nodded, making the movement with a slow and exaggerated style. “Hmmph. You not know half of what I know, if you looking for him. Still, must know more than the other cops. They don’t even bother, just laugh and walk away. Maybe he has friends in the high places, you know?”

He shrugged, picking up a piece that I hadn’t considered, in the far corner, and inched it forward a single square. His cryptic smile resurfaced, revealing the few teeth left in his head. The smile wasn’t entirely welcoming; something about it seemed predatory, sharklike. He was up to something, and I didn’t know if it had to do with the game or my questions about Soldano.

I continued studying the board, looking for his angle. There was an easy move that’d net me another two marks, but I suspected it was what he wanted me to do. I was more interested in where he was going with the piece in the corner, seemingly alone and unable to make an effective attack.

“Maybe,” I grunted at him.

“Pah. No maybe. When cops come here, and they hear that name, they put their little books away, they don’t ask any more questions. Sometimes, they look like they feel bad. Sometimes they pat you on the shoulder, look like they want to say something, but they don’t. They leave. Others, they smile like the people on the television, they say ‘Don’t worry, all be okay,’ then they leave too. Very quick. They don’t want to be in Little Odessa anymore than the rest of us. But they get to leave. We, we stay. They only visit, write their little notes, and leave. Soldano is just a boogeyman, nothing real to them. He weed out the garbage, they think.”

Nodding alongside his rant – though, he was right; all too often crimes, especially those they could trace to the mafiya, were ignored in Little Odessa. Easier. Simpler. – I took my move, claiming the pieces he’d left undefended. I couldn’t see any benefit to his previous move, didn’t see a trap coming, and just took it.

“They call Soldano boogeyman. Pah! I say, Stalin, he boogeyman. I call idiot Putin, he boogeyman. That Slender Man they talk about on the news, make those little girls kill, he boogeyman. You know difference, cop? Why Soldano not boogeyman? Boogeyman, he not real. He can’t hurt you. He story you tell children of why you left old country, of why you not go home, of why you be inside when it gets dark out and mama has supper ready. Soldano… he real.”

That queer echo of my mother again. She had said similar things, especially as her time wound down.

“So the cops, they come, and they write their papers, and now they think he gone, and they happy. Not because place is safer, now, but because there is less times we call them for no reason. Less paper to push. More time to drink their coffee and smoke their cigarettes and laugh at old Dmitri for still running this shop when everyone know there are no customers. They say ‘he maybe kill some people.’ Some? Pah!”

He jabbed his index finger into the table repeatedly, dredging up splinters with each syllable.

“Two hundred bodies we say are his. And that before he become real monster.”

He paused, catching his breath before taking another hit off his pipe. He glanced upward, over my shoulder, started to smile and then thought better of it. I heard the bell above the door clang twice, in rapid succession; by the time I’d glanced back to see who had come in, the door was already shut again and a figure was scurrying away. The instincts I’d fostered over my years with the force wanted me to give chase, but somehow I doubted one old lady in a babushka was of real interest. More likely she’d come for cigarettes or sugar, had seen a stranger, and decided against it. When I looked back at him, Dmitri was shaking his head.

“There, you see? You smell like cop. Even old Malvina knows it. You scare her off, no make sale. You owe me ten dollars American now, cop.” He laughed again, this time with actual humor in it, but waved it away when I reached to offer up my wallet.

“Always so serious, you people. I joking. Dmitri will get by, with or without your ten dollars. He always does.”

He settled one spidery hand over another piece, hopping one of my markers. I wasn’t worried. I’d left it there for him to take, setting up another blitz. Before I could make my countermove, he put his hand over mine. The feel of him was unpleasant, too warm, the skin papery and fragile next to mine.

“You not looking for Soldano as cop. You looking because he hurt you. Took something away. This, I understand.”

I jerked my head upward, glaring at him, wondering what sort of game he was playing. Did he know who I was, why I was really here? Through slitted eyes I watched him pull his own wallet from his pocket, struggling to get the fat and battered leather square free of his jeans. Dropping it open, his fingers rummaged for a moment before coming up with a small piece of celluloid that he brought reverently to his lips before crossing himself and turning it over.

“He hurt me once, too, cop. He hurt me because I tell what I know, what I see. He say ‘You ever do this again, Dmitri, I come back, make sure you never talk.’ Dmitri doesn’t care. He look at you, and he see someone who like him when he was young and strong and sure. He sees the fight not out of you yet. ‘Maybe’, I think, ‘he can do what you could not, eh?’”

He gestured to the picture again, begging me to look at it. It was old, creased and beaten from decades of being carried around in that ridiculous wallet, but it still haunted me. A little girl, with thick dark curls and wide eyes of emerald. A bright smile that showed the gleam of metal from fresh braces. One chubby hand extended as though to grab for something beyond the camera’s reach.

“My Irina. Only six. She was my world. Soldono thinks, he takes my world, he stops me. He is wrong; he only delay.”

I laid one finger on the photo, tracing the lines of the face. My eyes clenched, and I swallowed hard, trying to fight the sting of tears. She looked a great deal like Sascha had at that age.

“So I tell you where Soldano is. I tell you what Soldano is. You know why, cop?”

I shook my head, not trusting myself to speak.

“Because you look like type who might stop him. You might find him, might kill him, and then no one else come home and find their vnuchka nailed to the wall, eh? Dmitri has been waiting for one like you for a long time. Ever since Irina died. I wasn’t strong enough to do what I should have. Cops not care enough. But you… you care. You strong. You angry, and that make the difference.”

Dmitri wasn’t wrong. I’d given up my wife and son. My career. All that mattered to me was finding the son of a bitch and putting a bullet in his heart. It wouldn’t bring Sascha back, or get rid of the hole in my own heart. But it was right. It needed to be done. I nodded.

“See? Dmitri knows people. Is why shop is still open. So he tell you. If you want Soldano, you want the Virgin’s Grave. You know the place, old Shayden farm?”

Again I nodded. The place was on most of the patrol routes, since there was always somebody poking around, looking for ghosts or buried treasure. According to the stories, the Virgin’s Grave had been erected by the patriarch of the Shayden clan, memorializing his daughter. She’d been murdered by rum runners when dear old dad decided to hide their part of the take and keep it for himself. No one had ever found the money, or reliably seen the girl’s ghost, but it didn’t stop the lookie-loos.

Da. Virgin’s Grave, that’s where he goes. Late at night, with his new friends, ones who make him a real monster.”

I cocked my head, leaning back in the chair.

“You keep saying that. What is that even supposed to mean?”

Dmitri glanced downward at the photo of his daughter or granddaughter, not blinking or breathing for a long period. Sighing, he glanced up at me.

“You think I am crazy. No matter. I tell you. Maybe it help, maybe you laugh, maybe not matter either way. But when you go, if you really want him killed, you bring big weapons. Fire. Maybe chainsaw, even, for after. Because he not human. Two hundred he kill, and that was when he was a man. A hateful, evil, despicable man, but man just the same. But then he make friends, friends who are not men, who come only at night and never breathe or eat or drink, who stink like old borscht no matter how much cologne they wear. Then Soldano, he disappear for a few days. When he come back, he not eating or breathing or drinking or sitting in sunlight, either. And he smell like old dead thing, too.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. Superstition had never been my strong point. I already considered Soldano to be a monster – didn’t even have to factor in what he did to my sister to reach that conclusion; his rap sheet was full of atrocities far more severe than his associates in the Mafiya, and he was known to go to extreme lengths to intimidate when a simple baseball bat and the “nice place you got here” speech would suffice – but the idea that he could be a literal monster seemed a little farfetched.

Dmitri nodded, as though he could hear my line of thinking.

“Yes, I can see you think me an old fool. Is fine. Dmitri knows, tales of upir and rusalki are for the children and the hack writers, da? But some things from the old country, they not die out. They not just boogeymen to scare the children, they not just stories the grandmothers tell of when they were girls. You don’t believe, is fine. But I still see you mean to kill him, cop. And I want you to. So, even if it just is humoring this old man, you take fire, you take blades. You make sure.”

He tipped me a wink through the smoke of his pipe, and I could no longer tell if he was kidding or not.

“Besides. I am guessing that you are not wanting your comrades to find a body, da? Is good. Make sure you burn him. Salt the earth. Scatter the ashes. Will do for him whether he man or monster, and keep you safe besides, eh?”

Still not sure how much of his commentary was to be believed – he seemed trustworthy enough with his story of a lost child and the way the force treated his people, and the part of me that wanted Soldano dead sensed a kindred spirit in him, but when he started babbling about ghosts of the old country his credibility took a severe hit – I just nodded. Best play along. Whether or not his information was any good remained to be seen, but it was a place to start.

He smiled at me, then flapped his hand. “Good. Then you go, cop. Get out, before you scare away any more business, eh?” He chuffed another laugh that turned into coughing. By the time the fit had passed, he was red-faced and wheezing. I reached out and put a hand on his shoulder, but he waved me away again.

“Go, go. I will be fine. As fine as I ever get, you know.” He hawked and spat another wad of phlegm and blood into his wastebasket. “Now get.”

I stood up and backed away, still eyeing him with concern. He seemed to have already forgotten me, staring down at the checkerboard and not glancing back up at me even as the small bell rang once more and I slipped out.

* * *

Getting to the Virgin’s Grave was no problem at all. Had to take a few back roads – one of which was so overgrown and disused I was half worried that my Caprice would get bogged down and I’d have to hoof it – to keep out of sight and avoid the alcohol checkpoints, but it wasn’t particularly stressful.

What was bothering me more was what was in the trunk. I didn’t want to think I’d given the old man more credence than he deserved, but in addition to the .38 that was always strapped under my shoulder, I’d brought a Mossberg, a can of gasoline, and the axe that had once hung in my garage, patient and quiet until winter rolled around and Michelle and Pete decided it was time to hunt down the Christmas tree we’d call our own.

There was no trace of good memories left on that old axe, now. As I’d hefted it, testing the weight and the swing – aiming downward rather than sideways as I would have on those long gone December days – it seemed to thrum with deadly purpose. No longer a tool, it had become a weapon. The feeling intensified when I took it to the grindstone, honing the edge until it was sharp enough to split hairs.

I tried not to think about the idea that, if things went the way I wanted, I’d be using it to dismember someone. Or something, if Dmitri was to be believed. Which of course he wasn’t. It was easy to tell myself that while I was in my garage with all the fluorescents turned on, even easier as I got into my car with the warm August sun beaming down on me. But as the night crept in and crawled over me on that drive, as my headlights became a necessity, as they showed less and less of the road in front of me, it started to feel a lot more plausible.

Sascha hadn’t just been killed, after all. She’d been torn apart. No tool marks visible. The marks on her neck had been too wide, too deep, for a man’s hands, even a big one. The coroner claimed it was probably due to decomp, or an overabundance of humidity, which I’d mostly accepted. As much as I could accept anything about her death, anyway. But now, coming up the road to the supposedly haunted farm in the dark of night, headlights off so I didn’t spook Soldano or his friends if they really were here, a trunk loaded with weapons that I was now certain I really meant to use, hell or high water, it was all too easy to believe in the fairy tales and ghost stories that my mother had told us so often. Upir and rusalki and Baba Yaga stalking the night, stealing children.

I guessed that made me the noble woodcutter or the valiant knight, but I sure didn’t feel like it. I felt like a criminal, barely better than Soldano or those he ran with. But I’d accepted that. I’d lost almost everything else when he’d killed her; why not the last scrap of my own self-image and integrity?

I parked roughly a mile away from the site proper. Made sure I was in good tree cover, wedged between a pair of pines that had gotten particularly adventurous and close to the road. I could see the place: the road spilled into a large circle of brightly-colored pebbles and gravel, the trees trimmed back to respect that circle. At the north edge, farthest from the road, there was a ten foot tall, triangular monument. I’d taken pictures there enough times – local tourist attractions had been a quick and easy way to entertain Pete when he still liked me enough to want me to entertain him – to know the front was sculpted to look like the murdered girl kneeling in prayer, and the inscription beneath, worn almost to nothing from grave-rubbings and wondering fingers touching it, read “Aliana Shayden, Beloved Daughter, Devoted Child of God. Taken too soon for the folly of her father.”

To either side of the stone were remembrance torches. Members of the Shayden clan – who now lived upstate, having mostly abandoned the farm and its bad memories a generation ago – paid to make sure the grounds were swept and the torches kept fed, burning all through the night. Their flames cast conflicting patterns of shadow across the color spray of the clearing, but I was glad for them tonight. From their light, I could see figures moving about in front of the stone. Looked like three, but I couldn’t be sure at this distance. Might be nothing at all, for that matter. For a moment I cursed not having brought a set of binoculars – Pete had left them last time he’d been at the house, and even though they were simple little things, designed to amuse a six year old who thought he wanted to be a bird-watcher when he grew up, they would have been enough to get a count, at least – but knew it couldn’t be helped, now.

I turned away from the stone, going to the trunk of the car. I pulled out the Mossberg, cracking it as quietly as I could to make sure. The dull brass of the shell casings gleamed at me under the starlight. Ten gauge buckshot. Man or monster, it was enough to put an almighty big hole in somebody, and the Shayden farm had the advantage of being pretty far away from any neighbors. Even the checkpoints or patrols trying to keep randy teenagers away would probably only think of firecrackers if they heard it at all.

I reassembled the shotgun, and held it under my shoulder while I pulled out the axe. As soon as I gripped it, I felt that sense of deadliness creep over me again, the feeling that I was holding something with one single purpose that was about to be realized. I hadn’t felt that with the gun, not in the dozens of times I’d fired it on the range or the small handful of episodes where I’d drawn it while on duty, and not even tonight as I was coming to a holy place with murder in my heart. But the axe awakened that feeling in me, alongside a feeling of rightness. What I was going to do with it was necessary. It was good. It was what I – and it – had been made to do.

I slid the ash handle of the axe through the loop of my service belt, the one that used to carry my flashlight. The cold steel of the blade’s head rested against my side, sending a harmonic pulse of that sense of right through my body.

I checked to make sure the .38 was seated in my shoulder-rig, and that it was loaded. Hollow points, swiped from the testing range in exchange for a favor from Briggs.

Apparently I had been taking the old man seriously, at least subconsciously.

Nodding to myself, I took a deep breath and started towards the clearing. I kept to the tree cover, circling so as to come up on the west side of the monolith. My boots didn’t make a sound, even when they passed over small bits of discarded twig or the odd dead leaf. Maybe, I thought, only half-serious, the old man was right and there are monsters out there. But maybe there’s something else out there, looking out for you.

There was a perverse sense of comfort in the idea, no matter how crazy or false it might be. That comfort led, naturally enough, to thoughts of my mother and what she always suggested when we were scared – generally of her own stories – or upset or worried.

Prayer was always the answer, to her. Some take solace in rationality. Others – myself included – in law and order. She found it through God.

Thinking of it brought a strange compulsion over me. The idea that I would do such a thing while on such an errand seemed almost blasphemous, an oxymoronic joke. But I wanted to, just the same. I stopped my advance – now only a quarter mile away, and I could see the figures clear enough to tell that there were three of them, and that their attention seemed squarely focused on the stone marker before them – and slid back behind the trees.

Going kneebound and setting the Mossberg down, I clasped my hands together, but somehow it didn’t feel right. They felt empty, somehow unworthy.

I ran one finger over the handle of the axe, and that felt right. I pulled it free from the loop, tightening my grip with both hands and putting the head to the ground. I searched for the old words, things that I had once known by heart but that had lain forgotten for the better part of twenty years, when I first came to believe that God must be dead, that there is only man to right the wrongs. After a time, I found them.

The Lord’s Prayer, first. Then Psalm 23. Then I added “May Perun grant me strength,” though I wasn’t certain why; it was just something that used to be said in my house, probably a holdover from grandma, who had been big on the old religions and less interested in, as she put it, “the puling sheep-god.” But it still felt right.

I rose, socking the axe back into my belt; right or not, I preferred something with range, at least at first. There were three of them and only one of me, and if Soldano was there, I wanted to take my time with him which meant putting his companions out fast.

I slid closer still, and my breath caught in my throat. Of the three, I recognized two of them. One was short, missing a pair of fingers on his left hand. His white shirt was open, and on the flabby flesh beneath I could see what looked like dozens of tattoos. Almost certainly Mafiya, though either not a major player or not local, since I couldn’t place him. The second was of average height, with ragged and greasy black hair that was starting to show streaks of white in his ponytail. One hand was almost completely black, covered in ink. I wasn’t close enough to see it yet, but knew there was a six-pointed star underneath his left eye, and that his lower lip would be deeply scarred. Grigori Valen, formerly one of the middle men in the Liddle Odessa operation. He hadn’t been seen in months; most of us had assumed he’d gone too far with someone else’s girl and had paid the price, but here he was.

Standing between them, looking immaculate in a white suit, his blonde hair slicked into perfect spikes, not a mark visible on him – all his tattoos were in places you couldn’t see without stripping him, he was almost obsessively vain about that – and a head taller than either of his companions was Anatoly Soldano. The monster I’d come to kill.

They were talking, though I couldn’t tell if they were speaking to each other or the stone, the distance and the low pitch of their voice were against me. I could catch enough of the rhythm to know it was in Russian, though. I crept a step closer, and the one I didn’t recognize spun suddenly, facing me directly.

He was looking looking straight at me, even though with my all black clothes, the lack of light beyond the torches – which only served to light the stone and a small bit of the clearing – and the distance, I should have been all but invisible to him. I had a moment to think that perhaps he’d heard something else, or thought he had, that he was looking because he was paranoid and not because there was something to look at.

That illusion was shattered when he lifted his right hand, pointed directly at me, and shrieked. “Politseyskiy!”

Well, there goes the ballgame. Soldono and Valen turned as well. I butted the stock of the shotgun to my shoulder, knowing the spread would be too wide for any effective damage at this range, but hoping that a couple of shots would discourage them, when everything I thought I knew fell down.

Their eyes were the first thing I noticed. They blinked and went from normal – cold and reptilian in nature, but still human – to shining red lanterns with cat-like pupils. Their jaws dropped down, all three of them shrieking, and I noticed they opened impossibly wide. All three of them seemed to have their jawbones resting just above their stomachs, filled with too many razor sharp teeth and each with a dangling, serpentine tongue

The sound was inhuman. Nails on a chalkboard doesn’t even begin to describe it. Had there been anything glass nearby, I’m sure it would have shattered.

The one who’d noticed me dropped to all fours and charged. He moved like a wolf, or a wild dog, and far quicker than anyone should have a right to. He’d closed the distance between us in less than three seconds. I ran on instinct, my hands and body remembering their training even though my brain didn’t. The Mossberg tracked him, the hammer fell, and the thing went flipping head-over-ass backwards, most of the face and upper torso missing.

There was no blood. He didn’t make a sound. He started to get up, slowly but not seeming too impaired. Again working without my higher cognitive functions, my hands worked the action and slid another shell into the chamber, letting him have it in the chest this time. He flew back another five steps and sat down heavily, the ruins of his face twisting into a sneer.

The other two were coming. They didn’t move as fast as the first one, but they were still fast enough; my hands tried to do their trick again, but somehow screwed it up and jammed the shotgun. There wasn’t time to think, wasn’t time to unclasp the revolver. I dropped the shotgun and yanked the axe out and up, getting there just in time; Valen’s gaping maw was inches from me as the axe head lodged against the side of his throat, a solid impact that turned my hands numb. Without thinking, I twisted, using the weight of the blunt end to throw him down.

Soldano leapt towards me, and if I’d been any slower dealing with his friend, he might have got me. As it was, his outstretched hands – which were claws, I saw as they streaked past me – skirted only inches from the side of my head, in precisely the spot I’d been before spinning Valen to the ground.

I kept my momentum, turning and twisting the axe, catching Soldano in the gut and shoving him backward. Valen bounced back up and jumped on my back, latching on with that impossible mouth. I could feel the teeth pushing through my shirt, hitting flesh and boring in. The pain was exquisite, like nothing I’d ever felt in my life. Even the week where I had three root canals was practically paradise compared to this, and that was before the injuries began to burn, like someone had poured acid on them.

“Fucking Christ!”

At my exclamation, something happened. I don’t know what. The axe head – still half-buried in Soldano’s gut – seemed to pulse for a moment, a throb of bluish purple light that left a hazy corona burned into my retinas. Soldano seemed to fly backwards, freeing himself from the weapon and hunkering down, hissing at me. Valen let go, springing back as well. The third, who looked like he was about ready to get back up, thumped on his ass again, his distended face dropping into a mask of terror, eyes wide.

Something came over me then. I wasn’t fighting three monsters for my life or to avenge my sister. I was just doing my job, just cleaning up the trash, just like I’d done hundreds of times when I was still a cop. I jerked the axe up, muscles moving with a fluidity I hadn’t known they possessed, and almost casually flicked it sideways. Valen’s head hit the ground a moment later, still trying to scream.

Soldano backed away a little further, his eyes widening and starting to show the faintest tinges of ice blue at the edges. His jaw retracted a bit. Whether it was fear or caution, whatever he had become was slinking out of him, the human he had been resurfacing.

I started to advance. The pain didn’t matter anymore. The doubt was unimportant. What mattered is that there were two left, and they needed to be put down. Soldano backed up a step for each one that I took forward, and that was fine by me. As we passed his unknown friend, my hands did their own magic, dropping the blade down at an angle and tearing through the thing’s ribcage, splitting that horrid mouth in two, exposing organs that were little more than desiccated specimens that belonged in a lab, not in the chest of a walking, talking person. Or whatever he was.

Soldano hissed again as I split his friend in half, but there didn’t seem to be much bite to add to the bark; he was still backing up, though I could see he was almost out of room. A few more steps and he’d be butted against the monument, with nowhere else to go.

“How’s it feel, you son of a bitch? You like it? Being scared? Is it as much fun, now that you’re the one on the chopping block?”

A part of me was enjoying this too much. The feeling of power, the adrenaline rush, the sheer sadistic glee that I had the bastard exactly where I wanted him.

The inevitable happened; his back hit the monument, and he froze, jerking his head to either side, his nostrils flaring. Nowhere to run to; the sides extended over to the torches, and to get past those, he’d have to go through me. I smiled at him, showing all my teeth. They might not have been as impressive as his, but from the look of him, they were nearly as intimidating.

“Nighty-night, mudak.”

I swung, shearing through his jaw and into the neck behind it. My hands thrummed as the axe bit into the monument and lodged there, popping blisters I hadn’t realized I’d had. His head – the top half of it, anyway, if one took that mouth into consideration – stayed there, resting on the axe. The rest of him slumped to the ground, melting into a noxious gas that – as Dmitri had said – stank like spoiled borscht.

His eyes rolled in the sockets, seeming to fixate on me one last time, marking me. Then his skull started to melt, sliding off the axe to join the rest of him in a viscous puddle before evaporating.

I took a step back, and glanced over my shoulder. The other two were dissipating as well, though the spots they had fallen had turned dead and gray. Whatever else they were, they were toxic as hell. I doubted anything would grow there again.

I reached up to pull the axe out of the stone, wincing at the damage I had done. The blade had landed squarely in the stone woman’s chest, biting deep. I mumbled something like an apology while I tried to work it out of the carving, but the strength and surety that had driven it through the monsters a minute ago was gone. My arms were rubber, and getting a grip with my bloody, pus-covered hands was almost impossible. I finally had to brace myself against the side of the stone, push with my legs and yank with both hands to get it free. Then I vomited.

I might be bloody, bitten, bruised and broken, covered in my own puke, but the job was done. I could take a certain amount of satisfaction in that… but not nearly as much as I thought I would have.

If things like Soldano and his pals were real… what else might be out there?

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