Philip Lew is an ex-cop who just wanted to get away from Earth and the freak show it has become. Looking back, perhaps Hades was not the ideal spot for him to settle down. An artificial satellite owned and inhabited by The Darker Society--an organization formed to guard the rights of society's latest minority? If trendy vampires, werewolves, and such were too much to take on Earth, imagine them in close quarters. But, even in a paradise like Hades, all is not rosy. Someone, alive or undead, has decided to decrease the population, one citizen at a time. And these dead are NOT coming back to life. Or death. They're just not coming back. So, what fool decided Philip was the man to solve the crimes?
A Hard Shell Word Factory Release
Lisa DuMond is a freelance-writer living in Tallahassee, Florida, where it is ludicrously hot. Her reviews, interviews, and articles have appeared in PUBLISHERS' WEEKLY, BOOKPAGE, the REVIEW OF CHILDREN'S LITERATURE, BREAK magazine, and you can't escape them on the web. She is a Contributing Editor and reviewer for SF Site, a columnist for Spicy Green Iguana, and shows up sometimes in DISENCHANTED, and the IT'S A MYSTERY NEWSLETTER. Soon, she'll even be infiltrating the hallowed halls of SciFiNow and BLACKGATE. You can visit her online athttp://www.hikeeba.com. Even as you read this, she is at work on a new novel, several short stories, and the usual deluge of non-fiction assignments.
"Inventive, unusual, and funny."John E. Stith, Author of MANHATTAN TRANSFER and RECKONING INFINITY
"Lisa DuMond's novel DARKERS is a lively and exciting detective story set in a fascinatingly detailed satellite colony of vampires and zombies where life is still amazingly valuable to the undead."Phyllis Gotlieb, Author of FLESH AND GOLD and VIOLENT STARS
"eBooks have become a haven for younger authors who have the audacity to write outside the traditional boundaries of genre. Lisa DuMond's DARKERS is a prime example. Though it's being marketed as horror/dark fantasy, which is appropriate given that it features vampires, werewolves, witches and zombies, it also uses the conventions of many other genres. The setting, a satellite station known as Hades, is pure science fiction. The plot begins as a noir mystery and develops along the lines of a thriller. There's also a great deal of humor, so it has a sharp satirical edge as well."Garrett Peck -- Feo Amante's Story Time
MOST people on Hades don't shop in the middle of the night -- Earth night, that is, Hades' night being more or less a dimming of the station's artificial sunlight -- but that is about the only time I can squeeze it in. In fact, most "normal" people shy away from any night activity that starts on the other side of their front door. It doesn't really make much difference to the others.
This particular Feeding Frenzy is my haunt. It's the closest to my comb, though not the closest grocery store. The Foo-o-ood For The Soul around the corner from my microscopic apartment is a good ten minutes closer on foot. The Fresh Kill is certainly cheaper. Neither, though, carries a major staple of my diet.
As per usual, I had to bury myself up to the floating ribs in the pizza section of the freezer case and lean in as waves of frigid air swirled out and down around my ankles. The vast compressors attached to that bank of freezers were kicking into high gear before I was able to back out with the last three Tombstone vegetarian specials in the store. Where I live, it's not really smart to rely on the quality of anything labeled "meat."
Brushing ice crystals out of my hair, I dropped the precious pizzas into the cart, atop the canned spaghetti and frozen lasagna packages, and headed for the checkout lanes.
Situated strategically beside the cashiers was a small rack of magazine disks. Situated strategically beside that was the store's security guard. Young, like most of them, and convinced of his own obvious superiority in a world of far less impressive creatures such as me, all of whom shared no more worthy ambition than to be like him.
The guard looked up over the edge of the magazine reader with a humorless smile. It was a smile that would have sent many of the store's clientele skittering out the door, loaded as it was with overgrown, jagged teeth. The guard pulled his black lips further back for maximum effect and waited for the expected reaction.
"Got a little something there..." The guard snarled at my feigned attempt to point out the food particle. He seemed even less pleased when I walked past without acknowledging his mastery of the look that could kill.
"Lonny, the boss wants you to find out who's stealing all the silver cleaner. Get right on it." Lonny was saved from a nasty asskicking by the voice from behind the register.
Beside, the pizza, spaghetti, and other garlic-laden foods I come here for several nights a week, I can now add to the attractions Gina. I could get my necessaries at other stores, although it would mean a longer trip, but Gina I could not.
Gina suddenly became my number one favorite item in this overlit dump.
"How are you tonight?" She passed my Tombstone Specials over the scanner without cringing. A very good sign. She cocked an eyebrow at my selection.
"You are aware that this is typical bachelor food."
"Which would only be truly sad if I had a wife." No harm in slipping that vital data in.
"Still sobering to see someone slipping into that stereotype. You must have missed the canned toast on aisle three."
As she packed the last of the pre-fab food into my sack, I studied her in that cool way men have perfected which allows one to take in every detail while the unsuspecting woman remains completely ignorant of our interest. And she caught me. Just as well, there wasn't all that much that was truly above average, taken feature by feature.
The register hummed into payment mode with my card in its mechanical maw. Crimson fingernails ticked out a samba on the plastic carapace of the machine.
Dinner in hand, I prepared to re-enter that risky artificial night. For good measure, I took an extra few seconds to gird my loins for the walk home. It was, of course, coincidence that this loin-girding took place at Gina's register. It occurred to me to try another of those cool, hidden glances, but as the last one had been spectacularly unsuccessful....
"It doesn't work."
It was on the tip of my tongue to tell it worked perfectly well, thanks. The lonely thing was straining on its leash even as we spoke.
"Huh?" Oh. Good thing I kept the health report to myself. Lonny, the lupine rent-a-cop, was somewhere nearby anyway. Straining on his own leash for a chance to can my hash. "Hey, it's just that I never get tired of Italian food." I lowered my voice. "When I was growing up my parents told me we were Italian. It was years before I learned the ugly truth."
"Your parents were demented?"
"We were closet Chinese."
It is my destiny always to be part of a line. If I was on a payphone on the dark side of Pluto, before I could dial the number someone would show up behind me to wait. Tonight it was an overweight nurse with a six-pack of chilled beer and an attitude to match. I rescued my fingers just millimeters from being crushed against the counter by her massive hip. The invitation to move on was unmistakable.
Gina, however, seemed not to notice the mammoth presence. "You sound like you ought to talk to someone about that burden of shame." Before I could frame the witty reply that, unfailingly, I would think of ten minutes later, she turned away to greet charming cellulite woman. It was move on or get mowed down.
The streets of Hades are really no different from any urban area on Earth: poorly lit, under-patrolled, and the workplace of the criminal element. Here, though, the hapless stroller runs the somewhat unique risk of meeting up with a nightcrawler for a friendly game of forget-your-money-just-give-me-your-life. Highly frowned upon by the ruling party, but still a factor to be considered if one is looking for a place on the frontier. The stories of such encounters won't make the newsfeed, neither will you see the immediate jettison of anyone convicted of participating in those night sports. Jettison without the comfort of an artificial atmosphere suit.
Hey. Hades is a place where any vampire, werewolf, or zombie can live in peace. Let's keep it clean out there.
My frozen pizza was barely defrosted when I reached the safety of home and hearth, hearth being just a phrase now, what with the need to conserve oxygen on the station. I felt a pang, as always, at the thought of any of the zillion and one touches of home that had yet to make the journey into space -- successfully. A certain light and fluffy peanut snack came to mind. But most people still whine about the ban on tobacco.
It was just as I was stowing the precious frozen discs that I noticed the streak of ink scrawled on the side of my bag. Another person might have been angry or made straight for the dry cleanser to remove the offending smear. I'm just too big a slob to worry about that. And I might have just tossed it back on it's hook beside the refrigerator if my misspent adulthood hadn't cursed me with a suspicious nature.
Amazingly enough, it really was ink, an item rarely seen on this paperless planetoid. It really was ink and it really wasn't a smear. It was a voice line number. And it was Gina's. And one comfort of home, gravity, was having no effect on one part of my body.
Better, sometimes, not to take it feature by feature.
* * *
WAVES OF impact. Rattling my teeth. Bouncing my balls off the concrete. Scaly toes and ragged claws blocking what remained of my vision. My head popping back out from between my shoulders just in time to see a giant fist heading my way on its return trip.
Whoa! Godzilla knows my name!
"Philly! Open the door."
I forced one unwilling eye open. Oh, goddamnit. Not Godzilla, worse than Godzilla. The one person who knows to avoid that mat in front of the door.
Close your eyes and pray for a miracle if a zombie gang corners you in a dark alley. Give it up and open the door if you're hoping for Neil Persico to go away. No thickness of quilts could protect me from the fate that awaited me in the hall. Better just to let it in.
I tossed a shoe at the control button, which did the job on its way to wiping out two glasses on the stereo shelf. Maybe he'd step on the pieces and bleed to death. Couldn't remember the emergency number. Too bad, really.
"Philly, where are you?"
"Oddly enough, in bed. Stranger still, asleep."
"Oh. Okay. Look at this."
Okay, I had my corneas done before leaving Earth, so no glasses to clutter up my image, but I'll be goddamned if these things will work without a warm up. Waking up is more like a thirty minute journey through fog land than the "crystal clear mornings" they promised me.
Thirty minutes of this was not an option. "Just read it to me, asshole." Just a pet name, you understand.
"Class 3 for rent. G3 sector. Interior wall. Twelve month lease. $2600/month. Contact #45897."
"Let me see that!" He winced at my rough treatment of the hand unit. "Solar flares! Thank God you brought this to my attention, Percy. I've been waiting months for the chance to move away from you."
"Oh, Philly, be serious."
It is one of the sad facts of life that there are some people it is impossible to insult. They're few and far between, but they exist. It would be a better universe if Percy didn't exist in my corner of it.
"This," Percy narrowed his eyes and leaned toward me. Too close. I swatted him back with one still drowsing arm and paid for it with a hand full of wasps. Yet another thing to add to his lists of transgressions.
"You okay, Philly? Okay. You know what this is. It's another one." Pause for ridiculous effect. "A missing person."
He eased his considerable bulk back to allow plenty of room for my explosive reaction. Good thing. Close enough and I might have gone for a head butt. Sad, really, how a hopeful puppy dog face can make you want to smash it. Maybe that's just me. Something to think about.
Man, I don't wake up well.
"Percy. It's not illegal to move on Hades. They repealed that law. Remember the parade?"
"Ah, Philly, you're still kind of asleep."
Why do I never learn? Sarcasm, insults -- just wasted breath.
"This guy isn't moving. He's gone. Dead, right?" His pasty face whitened. I know. Hard to picture, but it happened. "Or maybe zombied?"
Zombied. Maybe not so hard to picture a big galoot like one Neil Persico losing his lunch at the thought. It's supposed to be strictly outlawed, another jettisoning offense. Right, and there are no weapons here on Hades, either.
Want to start a nest egg, put some credits aside for a rainy day? Thinking of a comfy retirement? Sign up with your local zombie megacorporation and take your pay in advance. You'll spend years as unpaid labor, sweating away at the jobs no one else will take. Well, not sweating, I guess; you're dead, aren't you? That's the big draw. You're not going to know what's happened to you. You're dead. What do you care? Grab the cash now and stop looking over your shoulder. They're not going to come for you early. Your signed and notarized agreement guarantees you the right to slip this mortal coil in your own good time. Live for a hundred more years or flash your credits card in the wrong place; it's all the same to the corporation. People spin out every day, so there's no shortage for the walking dead work force.
Except, it doesn't always work that way, does it? We're safe from the corporations, but it's not the corporations who are out looking for unpaid labor; why lay out credits when you don't have to. Be in the wrong place at the wrong time and you might find yourself facing a zombie gang. No contract, no advance to hole away, just a quick death and a carcass full of chemicals to keep you shuffling away in the shit jobs until you forget to wait for the elevator to arrive or a shipping pallet lands on you and you're too mangled to use anymore. That, or wait for the zombie task force to snag the gang who has you. They get a closed-doors trial and pfft! pop! another jettison. Justice done.
Yep. Call us a frontier town, if you like, but we do things our own way out here. Just don't remind Earth of that.
Of course, you're still dead. You don't get to be alive again. You just get the satisfaction of knowing your killers paid for their crimes. True, they paid for their girlfriends's apartments with your shambling corpse, but no system's perfect.
"What if it's zombie gangs?"
Judging by the sweat breaking out on his face, Percy was close to pissing his pants. Between the sweat and the threat of something worse, I decided it was time to get up. My shove moved him just barely enough to let me climb out of bed without touching him again. He didn't even have the sense to look embarrassed as I beat a hasty, stark naked retreat into the closet for some clothes.
"You're driving me ape sh -- Percy, get the hell out of my bedroom." He plopped down on the ever-present upholstered block of foam that passes for a couch in this neighborhood. "Listen, go back to numbers crunching and get off this paranoia jag. There is nothing wrong with listing an apartment for rent. People. move. around."
"This guy didn't move. He's gone. Look."
He may have heard me starting a slow meltdown, but he overlooked my rude behavior and waved his palm computer in my face. I pushed it back a foot to where I could actually see the thing. I would have pushed it all the way back into his pocket, but Percy does outweigh me almost two to one. A rudenik, I may be, but a realistic rudenik. Better to just take a look and then I could get rid of him.
A screen full of numbers.
"What is it?" I said through gritted teeth.
"That's where Arnold Armstrong's -- that's the guy's name -- supposed to be. Okay, okay." He gave me a "calm down" smile and poked at the palm unit. A rough schedule popped up on the screen. "Armstrong's been gone for two weeks. These are appointments he missed. This is the last day he showed up on the job. This--" I cut into his run-away discourse with a raised hand and took the machine away from him.
Scary how long our numbers trail stretches these days. Arnold Armstrong, slotted for refurbishment at the spa, meeting with an accountant, not showing up for work at Technical Arm 3. I thought about pointing out the evils of snooping, but why bother? Find a way to keep a systems monitor from digging and you'll be in demand with every government and computer firm in the galaxy. Besides, I'm hardly above using the curious little button pushers myself.
Percy was waiting silently, big eyes begging me to get excited about the whole thing. Sigh.
"Look, budro. All you've got here're some missed connections. This guy's not missing, he's probably having a good time somewhere in the station and doesn't want to go back to the real world. He'll show up."
"Alive or dead?"
"Get out, Percy." No one I've ever met could be a bigger power drain than Percy; ten minutes of exposure and I was ready to go back to sleep. As always, he just seemed to get more hyperactive. Kind of suspicious, really.
Psychic vampires may be allowed on the station, but they're not welcome in my apartment.
"But, this is the fourth one! I think you need to look into it. You could find out what's going on. You're the only one I know who used to be a--"
"All right. Stop right there." If I'd had the energy, I might have punched him. No, I wouldn't have, but it sounded good. Instead, I turned him around with a shove toward the front door. "You know the rules. Out."
Percy took two stumbling steps and planted his feet. Too bad I wasn't faster with my own brakes. My jaw felt unhinged. That must be what it feels like to run into a mountain at top speed.
"Sorry, sorry, sorry. Come on, I'm sorry." He shrugged. "You don't want to hear about it, that's okay."
Something about it seemed just a little too easy.
"Here. Okay?" Palm unit stowed in his pocket, he lifted his hands in surrender.
"Wanna go get breakfast, Philly?"
"No more talk about missing people?"
"All forgotten." He mimed turning a key in his temple. "Not a word."
Why do I believe people?
* * *
AN HOUR and three cups of mocha later and Percy was well and truly into his dissertation on the perils of life on this monstrous satellite. He looked up from the flatsheet for the thirtieth time to make sure I was paying attention. The unhealthy gleam of paranoia was in his eye. Hit me so hard I ordered a fourth cup.
"Missed appointments." A sausage-like finger came down hard on the display. The image quivered slightly. "Apartments up for rent." The sausage moved on to the next column. "Days absent from work." His voice deepened ominously. "Mail not retrieved."
He ducked his big head to avoid my scowl. Mail is supposed to be one the last vestiges of unassailable privacy on Hades. Is nothing sacred?
My mocha arrived on the tray of one scary female. Raven hair and crimson lips played off against blue-white skin and over-bright eyes. Your standard, cosmetic surgery vampire. Nothing sacred? What an idiotic question.
The waitress leaned over the table with a needle tooth smile, flashing the usual yard-and-a-half of bare skin. With a smile like that, you're never sure if they want your number or your bodily fluids. My plan of action -- as always -- pretend you don't really notice them. Smile politely, then ignore them.
Unfortunately, not every woman who smiles at me has been a Creep. But it doesn't enhance my chances with them to ask for verification. Either way, I'm probably the loneliest and horniest man on Hades.
Better a horny warm body than a satisfied donor. Some things you have to learn from experience.
"What do you think, Philly?" The tone in his voice made me think that wasn't the first time I'd been asked the question. I put on my best thoughtful expression to cover the lapse. If he started the whole theory again, I'd call the waitress back and offer my neck. A long, slow sip of the hot, smoky chocolate gave me the strength to forge on.
"Well... let's forget for a moment that you are snooping around in ways that make my flesh crawl. There is nothing there. Do you even have a missing person report?"
Percy looked like a kid facing his first beer.
"Oh, shit. You dig around in Joe Conspiracy's private life, but you won't crack the security files?"
He mumbled something incoherent that I think was connected somehow with prison, expulsion, and landfills. Or anthills. Like I said, I couldn't hear him very well.
Everyone has their little bugaboos, I suppose. With Percy, It was an irrational respect for government. That and the sanctity of carbohydrates. Let no doctor put asunder.
"Well, worry not, old friend. Missing person files are public info. At least, the filing of one is." Time for another eyeball steaming sip of mocha. The cup was almost empty. I put a hand over it to discourage any further visits from our friendly plasma-addicted waitress. "There probably aren't any, though. You would have seen them on the newsfeed, right? So we could all be alerted and keep an eye out for them."
For just an instant, a hint of reason crossed his doughy face, but it was fleeting. He had a crime watchers monkey on his back and it was digging its nails in for a long ride.
Maybe it really was time to look for a new apartment, before he did something to call attention to me. As if I could afford an interior wall slot. Not that and enjoy sumptuous surroundings such as this coffee niche. The Shakes. I think that says it all.
Heads whipped in our direction. Percy lowered his voice, but he wasn't giving up that easy. He argued rather ineffectually in a hoarse whisper that was so much easier for me to ignore. Our fellow diners weren't really any more interesting than the conversation, but they had the added attraction of being pretty much uninterested in my existence.
Except one gaunt giant of a man in a tiny booth against the far wall. He cut his eyes away as soon as he was aware of my stare, but not fast enough. He'd been watching us, all right. Now he put all his efforts into blowing on a steaming mug of colorless liquid.
Coffee Clear. Figures. I guess I was just entering college when it hit the market like a concussion grenade. Coffee Clear parlors popped up everywhere. T-shirts featuring the blindingly-white toothed smiles of that enviable caffeine-productive couple, Mitch and Vera. It didn't stain your teeth. It didn't stain your clothes. Spill it on your carpet and you can't even tell. Until it dried. Then, you'd better hope your whole carpet was white, because that spot certainly would be.
Coffee Clear. Once the biggest product to hit the market. It looked sparkling and inviting in your cup. Many coffee shops switched to transparent cups just to feature their personal seat on the band wagon. Of course, it was clear; it contained the active whitener of chlorine bleach. No wonder those smiles were so dazzling. A few cups of that chemical brew and years of coffee build-up disappeared. Apparently, so did the lining of your intestinal tract. Coffee Clear was yanked from the market.
To be more precise, it was yanked from the general market. I hadn't seen it since the big scandal until I arrived on Hades. Hey. What's the point of being the undead if you can't take chances with your health? The Darker Society embraced Coffee Clear like a rich relative.
My cadaverous friend took a long, apparently satisfying pull from the mug and looked up at me over the rim. Sharp bones threatened to burst through the tight skin as a sly smile stretched his face. He lowered the cup enough to give me an unobstructed view of his mouth. Slowly, he dragged the tip of his blanched tongue across blue-violet lips. Sharp teeth glittered in the fluorescent light.
Oh, that's all he wanted. A quick suck, one way or the other. Perfectly safe to ignore him.
But, that left me with Percy. Sigh. Time to tune back in to his rantings.
"--could look into it. Something's going on and you can crack the case."
We were attracting a bit more attention now. My fault. While I was busy ignoring poor Percy, he had been working himself up to a fever pitch; his voice was well into the megaphone decibels at this point. His face was taking on an unhealthy pink tinge. Unhealthy for this place.
I pressed a finger to my lips and he quieted down like a hyperactive three-year-old. That hint of pink became escalated to glowing, well, something like the color of a Santa Claus suit. He slid lower in his chair, but his considerable bulk made a true disappearing act out of the question. He glanced nervously at the other patrons, but I made a don't-worry-about-it gesture and Percy relaxed as much as he was going to tonight.
"Tell you what, I can't do anything about it until--" Quick calculation for the ludicrous Hades calendar. "after the quarter moon. But let me get some of jobs out of the way and I'll see if there's anything to it. Okay?"
His face creased for a minute, after all, the half moon was five days away. On the other hand, I had promised to look in to it. To Percy, that meant I was as hooked as he was. Poor trusting soul, he would never suspect me of making a half-assed inquiry just to shut him up. Looking under my door mat was about as much in-depth searching as I was planning. Tell him I found nothing and he would go on to some other, hopefully, less annoying mania.
"You really will?" He stared at me with those pleading, puppy dog eyes.
"Look." For his benefit, I pulled out my personal minder. Counting forward five days, I entered a notation, "Check on missing persons." A perfect semi-circle glowed before the words. Only in a society like this would everything be set to reflections off a chunk of dust that wasn't even visible from here. We do fine with dates and moon phases; who needs silly things like days of the week with their religious origins? Not the likes of us.
"Absolute proof that I will check it out."
Percy squinted at me in his best approximation of shrewdness. "You won't erase that and act like we never talked about it?"
Ooops. Guess he wasn't so gullible, after all. With my luck, "Gaslight" was on again last night. That always makes him less pliable for awhile. Percy may be the gentlest guy I know, but he could spot a conspiracy in a parade float.
"Word of honor, my friend." That did it -- any acknowledgment of our friendship put him on an hour-long high every time. And, what the hell, it was the truth. Percy was the only person I could really call a friend on this god-forsaken satellite.
Rules of Citizenship-3
11. Equal rights will be accorded under the law, regardless of race, creed, sex, disability, transformation, living or non-living status.
12. Violence, mental or physical against other citizens of the Station, regardless of the degree of severity or the damage incurred, which is motivated or instigated by the race, creed, sex, disability, transformation, living or non-living status of the victim will be classified as a "Hate Crime" and dealt with by the maximum penalty allowable for that classification of crime, or exile, whichever is greater.