Tortured Souls [Arbiter Series Book 2]
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by Matthew L. Schoonover
Description: Incubus-detective Gus Pilot is back in a paranormal police procedural that pits mortals and supernaturals alike against the Arbiter. When body gases escaping from a corpse start killing people Pilot is put on a timetable that pits him against wise guys, vampires, the FBI and a bodiless sylph. Side-stepping the Secret Service and a Presidential appointee he's supposed to be guarding, he must stop a plague and keep his friends from suspecting supernatural interference. But time is running out...
eBook Publisher: ebooksonthe.net, 2002
eBookwise Release Date: June 2006
16 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [322 KB]
Reading time: 219-307 min.
...[T]here ariseth another priest, Who is made, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life.
Webster was the first to meet the stranger, although later, when people started asking questions, he kept his mouth shut.
Webster wasn't a young man, he knew, but he didn't consider forty-nine as old as he once had. He had been in good health all his life and even though he was going bald (no graying, no thinning, just straight to bald) and had about twenty pounds too much around his mid-section, he had thought himself worldly and able to take care of himself.
He had been wrong. So terribly wrong.
Leaning against the wall of a honky-tonk, Webster was on his knees, vomiting, when the hand came down softly on his shoulder. "Are you all right?" the stranger asked.
He turned to see a face shrouded in shadows. The weak light from the parking lot lamp was behind the stranger and too far away to do anything but throw shadows on already existing shadows. Even with that thin light, he could tell the man was black. A black man in a black shirt, shadow on shadow. At this realization came a thought; a thought that made Webster lean his head against the brick wall and laugh hoarsely through split lips. His head reverberated with the sounds of country music coming from the other side of that wall. "Great!" he thought, "I must have a neon sign on my back that says SUCKER." He had already been used and thrown away once tonight, and now this guy, obviously seeing an easy mark, had come to scavenge.
The stranger wiped blood from his face with a handkerchief. He raised a hand to ward the man off. "I'm fine," he said, his voice a whisper filled with pain. His nose was broken, he had one swollen eye, and one cracked rib for sure, maybe more. For all that, he still felt lucky.
"Who did this?" the stranger asked.
"I did," he said. "It was my own damn fault. I should have known better."
Hands began probing his body; gentle, knowing fingers that seemed to know where each sore spot was; brushing over those areas without touching hard enough to cause pain. Even though he knew what those fingers were doing he still misunderstood their intent, still clung to his first impression. "You're too late," he said through split lips. "They already took it."
"Who did?" the stranger asked. "What did they take?"
For answer, he tapped the wall behind his head and said, "Everything that was of any worth to me."
"You're still alive."
"You're wrong, Mister. I'm dead. Or at least I will be when I get to Benny's."
He was about to tell the stranger to mind his own business, to find someone else to mug, when he caught sight of something in the weak parking lot lamp. The stranger turned sideways while probing his body and the dark shirt he was wearing suddenly took on a minor glow of its own. It was centralized, localized, singular, and Webster had to stare for a minute before he understood what it was.
"You're a priest?"
He caught a partial smile on the black man's face, ironic, almost impish. And then he noticed the black man's eyes.
They were gray-green.
"Who are you?"
"Someone on a mission," the stranger answered.
I must be going into shock, Webster thought as a cold finger ran down his spine. "Mission? What kind of mission?"
The priest started to speak and then stopped. "I was going to say a mission of mercy, but there is no mercy in what I've set out to do. Call it a mission of justice. I am looking for a man named Red Hurly. Truck driver. I'm told he frequents this bar on occasion."
Webster tried to stand. "He's in there," he said. "Him and his friends did this to me."
The words jumbled out, "Playing pool ... money for Sharon ... sick, real bad ... needed chemotherapy and the insurance ran out. Was winning too. Red didn't like it." For the rest, he showed the priest his right hand, now a mangled heap of flesh and bone at the end of his wrist. "He didn't like it at all."
"How much," the priest asked.
"About two hundred dollars."
"No. I mean, how much do you need for the Chemo?"
Webster stared in disbelief. "Too much," he answered. "Besides, the two hundred is for Benny. He's the loan shark I borrowed money from to pay for the Chemo."
The priest helped him into a fairly comfortable sitting position. "Wait here," the priest said.
Webster reached up with his good left hand and took hold of the shirt. The priest pulled gently but Webster wouldn't let go. "You've helped me some, Father, and I'd like to repay you if I can. You can't go in there. The last black man who went in there hasn't been seen since." The priest looked at him with mild surprise. "You would help me?" An impish smile spread across his face. He patted Webster's hand in a comforting manner, dislodging it from his shirt. "Trust in the Lord," he said.
"Only if he's got a forty-five."
"Better than that." the priest chuckled.
Webster watched in stunned disbelief as the black man with the priest's collar and eerie gray-green eyes walked into the bar.
* * * *
The bar was country hick all the way, with cattle horns on the walls and a saddle set up behind the bar. The place was thick with smoke and the priest squinted as he looked around. There was a jukebox, a small bandstand for a non-existent band, a dance floor almost as small as the bandstand and lots of little two person tables with four chairs around them. Off the bar and separate from the dance floor were four pool tables, the last one, against the far wall, having five people around it. All the men wore cowboy hats or baseball caps, cowboy shirts and boots. Other than those players, there was a waitress and a bartender at the bar. No other people were present.
In the light, the priest could be clearly seen. He was a black man of above average height, thin looking but not weak--wiry came to mind--dressed completely in black. Only the white at his collar reflected light.
He spotted the pool players just as they spotted him. Smiling, he walked up to the bar. "Beer," he said to the astonished fat man with the stringy beard behind the counter.
While the bartender hesitated, the priest heard the other men leave the pool table and moved up around him.
"They don't serve niggers here," someone said. He turned to the voice and saw a tall, thick chested man with a bright red beard and red hair sticking out from under his Stetson. He reeked of beer. His small blue, pig-eyes were blood-shot, but his look was focused without a hint of glazing.
"Not drunk," the black man said aloud to himself. "Good. He shall be responsible for his actions." In a louder voice, he added, "Do red-necks still say nigger?"
"Okay," Red said, ignoring the white collar "Let me rephrase that. We don't serve African-Americans here."
"Don't blame you," the priest said, "I've been to Africa. Too hot, too much war, too many trouble-makers."
"You don't know what trouble-makers are, Padre." Red raised a hand, pointing one thick and callused finger at the priest. "If you think being a priest is going to save your ass, you better think again."
"Now Red," the fellow next to him said. "Don't be in such an all-fired hurry." He was Hispanic, with thick black hair and olive skin. A glazed look in his eyes spoke of more than alcohol in his system. He wore a tiny gold cross about his neck, and the priest eyed this with interest. The Hispanic continued, "Maybe he's here looking for sinners to save." Everyone laughed. The bartender stepped to the side and stuck a hand under the bar.
"Think so, Popper?" Red said. "Is that right, Padre?"
"Half right," answered the priest. "I am looking for a sinner, but not to save his soul. Anyone here know Red Hurly?" His eyes didn't waver from the face of the red head.
Red jabbed the priest with his finger again. "Not here to save my soul, huh? What you want,Padre Negro? You want my confession?"
The priest moved with lightning speed. Before anyone knew what was happening, he had wrapped a hand around that callused finger.
Then he squeezed.
There was a popping sound as joints separated. Red let out a gasp of pain and fell to his knees. "Now listen to me," the priest cooed, "I'm no nigger, you red-neck sonofabitch, and I don't come from Africa. I'm an Iberian Moor. From Spain." He eyed Popper. "Who knows," he added pointedly, "we could be related." He turned back to Red. "And I'm not here to take your confession. I'm here to shove it down your throat. Last month you hauled a shipment of pipe fittings to Albuquerque. While you were there, you raped a young lady, a waitress, beat her to a pulp and left her for dead. Only she wasn't dead. Yet. I found her first. She made me promise to help her and finding you was the best I could do
"Stop right there, Father," the bartender said. The priest felt the cold steel of a pistol at the back of his neck.
He turned slowly until he was able to look eye to eye with the bartender. "Did you hear what I said?" Still, the Moor's voice was calm. Uncannily calm in the situation.
"I heard," the man answered. "But I know Red and I don't know you. You may be a priest--and I sure don't want to blow away no priest--but you don't come in here and make them kind of statements without proof."
The Moor raised his free hand so the bartender could see it. Slowly, he moved it down and into his back pocket. He removed it and placed something on the bar. The bartender looked at it.
It was a silver belt buckle with an image of Texas on the front, surrounded by silver stars.
"I found that on the girl," the Iberian Moor explained. "He used his belt to tie her hands. Must have been drunk because he forgot to take it with him. Look at the back."
The bartender turned it over. Etched roughly in the metal of the buckle were two letters: R.H.
He removed the pistol from the Moor's neck and waved it at everyone. "Take it outside," he said.
"Jesus, Cris," Red gasped. "You gonna let him do this to me?"
"I've seen that buckle before Red, but I ain't seen it on you since you come back from that run. Take it outside." And then, with a smile, he added, "Five to one seems good odds to me, Red. You're on your own."
The four men with Red moved to the door, smiles of anticipation on their faces. Two reached for pouches on their belts and pulled out knives; two still held their pool sticks in their hands. "Come on, Padre," Popper said.
As the Moor walked Red outside by his finger, Red tried one last time. "Call the cops Cris!"
Cris laughed. "That'll be the day," he said. "Besides, it looks like it's in the Lord's hands now, Red."
"Amen, Brother Cris," the Moor said in a jovial voice.
Cris chuckled again and moved around the bar. "This I gotta see." He followed at a respectable distance, keeping the pistol in his hand but pointed at the floor.
The Moor moved outside and away from the building. Now Webster could see everything that was about to happen.
The four friends surrounded the Moor and Red, waiting for someone else to make the first move. When he was set, the Moor let Red go. He fell to the ground with a thump.
"Who shall be first to feel the wrath of God?"
A tall, skinny man with one of the pool sticks leaped in at the Moor, swinging the heavy end at his face. His leap was followed quickly by one of the others with a knife.
The Moor moved swiftly, dodging the pool stick, and reaching up with an elbow to club at the man's face. There was a crack as the man's nose shattered and he fell to the ground, gurgling blood-thick screams and holding his face.
The knife man came from behind and his blade sunk deep into the Moor's side. The Moor ignored the blade as he turned on the fellow, grabbing his wrist and twisting. There was another snap, and the man screamed with the pain. The Moor spun him around, warping not just the wrist but the whole arm as he warded off the other two for a few minutes before throwing the man away.
He reached down casually and pulled the knife from his side. The two still un-bloodied watched in fascination as the long blade came out. It was covered in blood. The Moor tossed it away, too. He looked at Popper. "Next?"
"Get him, Popper!" Hurly screamed from the ground.
Popper turned the knife in his hand so that the blade faced anyone he punched at. He moved in slowly, crouched and with guard up. It was clear that he had done some boxing in his past.
The Moor didn't even crouch. Popper circled him once and, as if on cue, the last friend with a pool stick leaped at the Moor's back.
The Moor wasn't taken unawares. He turned as the man left the ground and reached out for him. He grabbed the pool stick with one hand even as the other was squeezing the man's throat.
Stopped in mid-flight as if hitting an invisible wall, the man hung in the Moor's grip, feet dangling inches from the ground.
Popper moved in.
The Moor twisted around and tossed the man he was holding at the Hispanic. They collided and fell backwards.
It was then he noticed Red.
Red had been sitting on the ground with his hands between his boots, apparently nursing his broken finger. Now his good left hand came up from his boot, holding a Saturday Night Special.
Pop! Pop! Pop!
The Moor fell backwards with three holes in his shirt.
Red stood on wobbly legs and, standing over the Moor, put three more shots into his chest. "Nobody messes with me," he yelled. Then he spit on the body.
Red looked at Cris to see what he would do, but Cris was already moving back inside.
He turned from the body and stared at his friends. "You guys are worthless," he spat. "If it wasn't for me--"
"Oh, Red," came a lilting voice from behind him.
He turned just as the Moor began to rise. He didn't rise as most people would, using gravity and bending his knees. He rose from where his heels touched the ground, back straight and body unbent. When he was standing on both feet his face was inches from Red's.
The Moor smiled and Red noticed the glowing eyes for the first time.
"Whatsoever you do to the least of my people," the Moor said, reaching down and taking Red's pistol hand in his own, "That you do unto me. He twisted the gun in Red's hand until it was pointing back at Red.
At his crouch.
Pop! Pop! Pop!
Pain flashed into numbness and Red's eyes glazed as the Moor let him go. He fell to the ground, both hands trying to stop the bleeding.
The Moor turned to the others, but already three of them were stumbling away toward their vehicles or the darkness beyond the lamp light. Only Popper stayed. He stared with wide eyes at the vampire-Moor-priest, taking in the fiery red eyes and extended white fangs. "Madre de Dios!" he exclaimed. He reached for his gold cross and held the thimble size icon in front of him.
The vampire laughed. Reaching under his shirt, he produced a much larger icon. A bronzed crucifix, looking old as time and impressive in the vampire's grip. Only the Moor knew it was neither old nor bronzed. He'd had it specially made only last year. He ignored the small hidden switch on its backside and flung it at the Hispanic. "Try this one."
Paralyzed with fear, Popper watched as the Moor approached, put one hand over the fist holding his cross and push it aside. Closing even more, the vampire leaned into the man and smiled wide enough so that Popper wouldn't miss the fangs. Then he spoke. "Let me ask you something,compadre, if the cross is nothing but jewelry to you, why should it be anything else to me?"
Popper wet himself.
The Moor grabbed him by the shoulder and walked him to Red, who was still writhing on the ground. "Who has the money?" the Moor asked.
"What? Money?" He couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Is that all you want? Money? Aren't priests supposed to take a vow of poverty?"
The Moor laughed as if at a genuinely funny joke. "It's not for me, you idiot! It's for the man you cheated. Two hundred dollars."
"Red has it," Popper said, now shaking all over.
The Moor turned to him, giving him a good shake. "Listen to me!" He waited until he knew the man was listening. "You're being given a second chance, do you understand?" Popper nodded as if trying to shake his own head off his shoulders. The Moor let him go. "Go," he said. Popper turned and half stumbled, half ran away. Over his shoulder he heard the Moor laugh and say, "And sin no more."
The Moor turned to Red. Leaning down, he fumbled in the man's pockets until he found the wallet. He extracted two hundred dollars and dropped the wallet on Red's chest, looking deep into the dying man's eyes. Red stared back with glazed but conscious eyes. "I should finish you off," the Moor sighed, "but that would be too merciful to my way of thinking. You left that girl to suffer unto death and that is exactly what I intend to do to you." He glanced at the pool of blood surrounding Red. "Couple more minutes should do it. You shall have time to contemplate your sins before you meet your maker."
He stood and moved to Webster.
Webster hid his face, turning from the vampire and hoping to live through the night--his broken hand and cracked rib didn't seem so bad all of a sudden. Even Benny didn't seem so bad.
He felt a gentle touch on his shoulder. "Here," the Moor said.
When nothing else happened, Webster looked up. The Moor was standing over him, offering him the two hundred dollars.
Slowly, fearfully, he reached up with his good left hand and took the money. "Th-Thanks," he managed.
"Come on," the Moor said, helping him up. "Let's get you to a hospital. You can tell me about Benny on the way."
Webster stopped him with a look. "Who are you?" he asked, curiosity getting the better of his fear.
"I am called Moineau."
"Moineau? What is that, French or something?"
Moineau smiled. "Yes, French," he answered as he walked Webster to his car and placed him in the passenger seat. "It means Sparrow." He extracted Webster's keys from his pocket and moved around to the driver's side. Getting in, he drove away in silence.
Neither man nor vampire saw the dark shadow that swooped down and engulfed Red Hurly.