Thursday, September 06, 2012

Exclusive Excerpt: THE WRONG GOODBYE by Chris F. Holm

Holm-WrongGoodbye

Following hot on the heels of our interview with Chris F Holm yesterday (which was very well received), I’m very happy to share an exclusive excerpt from The Wrong Goodbye [after the break]. This is Chris’s second novel in his Collector series (coming very soon from Angry Robot Books). Here’s the synopsis:

Meet Sam Thornton, Collector of Souls.

Because of his efforts to avert the Apocalypse, Sam Thornton has been given a second chance – provided he can stick to the straight-and-narrow.

Which sounds all well and good, but when the soul Sam’s sent to collect goes missing, Sam finds himself off the straight-and-narrow pretty quick.

File Under: Urban Fantasy [ Missing | Soul Provider | Call Collect | Demon Child ]

[Also, before you move on to the extract – how cool is that cover?]

1.

Rain tore through the canopy of leaves, soaking my clothes until they hung wet and heavy on my limbs but doing little to dispel the fetid stench of decay that pervaded every inch of this God-forsaken place.

Just keep moving, I told myself. It’s not far now.

Mud sucked at my shoes as I pressed onward, swinging my machete at the knot of vegetation that barred my way. The roar of the rain against the leaves was deafening, swallowing the noises of the jungle until they were little more than a distant radio signal, half-heard beneath the waves of static. Heavy sheets of falling water obscured my vision, reducing my entire world to three square feet of vines and trees and rotting leaves. I swear, that dank jungle stink was enough to make me gag. Then again, that could have been the corpse that I was wearing.

See, I’m what they call a Collector. I collect the souls of the damned, and ensure they find their way to hell. Believe me when I tell you, it ain’t the most glamorous of jobs, but it’s not like I really have a choice. Back in ’44, I was collected myself, after a bad bit of business with a demon and a dying wife. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but this gig of mine was my end of the bargain. Most folks think of hell as some far-off pit of fire and brimstone, but the truth is it’s all around them, a hair’s breadth from the world that they can see – always pressing, testing, threatening to break through. That hell is where I spend my days, collecting soul after corrupted soul, all in service of a debt I can never repay.

Which brings me to Colombia, and to the dead guy I was wearing.

One of the bitches about being a Collector is that even though you’re stuck doing the devil’s bidding for all eternity, your body’s still six feet under, doing the ol’ dust-to-dust routine. But a Collector can’t exist outside a body, which leaves possession as our only option. Most Collectors choose to possess the living – after all, they’re plentiful enough, and they come with all kinds of perks, like credit cards and cozy beds. You ask me, though, the living are more trouble than they’re worth. They’re always crying and pleading and yammering on – or even worse, trying to wrestle control of their bodies back – and the last thing I need when I’m on a job is a backseat driver mucking everything up for me. That’s why I stick to the recently dead.

Take this guy, for example. I found him on a tip from my handler, Lilith, who handed me a clipping from a local paper when she gave me my assignment. “Honestly,” she’d said, her beautiful face set in a frown, “I don’t understand your morbid desire to inhabit the dead, when the living are so much more convenient and, ah, pleasant-smelling.”

“A living meat-suit doesn’t sit right with me. It’s kind of like driving a stolen car.”

“You’re aware you’re being sent there to kill someone, are you not?”

“Yeah, only the folks I’m sent to kill need killing.” I waved the article at her. “The hell’s this thing say, anyway? I barely speak enough Spanish to find the restroom.”

“Says he’s a fisherman. Died of natural causes – and just yesterday, at that. He’s as fresh as can be,” she added, smiling sweetly.

Fresh. Right. Just goes to show you, you should never trust a creature of the night.

Turned out, Lilith’s idea of natural causes included drowning. This guy’d spent six hours in the drink before they’d found him, washed ashore in a tangle of kelp a good three miles from where he’d gone overboard. I’d cleaned up as best I could in the mortuary sink, but no amount of scrubbing could erase the reek of low tide that clung to his hair, his skin, his coarse thicket of stubble. Still, if Lilith thought this guy would be enough to make me cave and snatch myself a living vessel, she was sorely mistaken. I’m nothing if not stubborn.

But the hassle with the meat-suit was nothing compared to the job itself. His name was Pablo Varela. A major player in the local drug trade. Varela’s brutality was a matter of public record. In the two decades he’d been involved in the trafficking of coca, he’d only once been brought to trial. It was seven years back, and the Colombian government turned the trial into quite the spectacle – TV, radio, the whole nine. Their way, I guess, of demonstrating their newfound dedication to the War on Drugs. Varela declined counsel, and mounted no defense. After eight weeks of damning testimony from the prosecution, it took the jury only minutes to acquit. Some say Varela got to them – that he threatened their lives and the lives of their families if they failed to set him free. Others claim he didn’t have to, that his reputation alone was enough to guarantee his release. Whatever it was, the jury made the right choice. Save for them, everyone who set foot in the courtroom over the course of his trial was murdered – every lawyer, every witness, everyone. Some, like the bailiff and the court reporter, got off easy: two bullets to the back of the head. The judge and chief prosecutor weren’t so lucky. They were strung up by their entrails in the city square – their throats slit, their tongues yanked through the gash in the Colombian style. One week later, the courthouse burned to the ground.

Now a guy like Varela, I don’t much mind dispatching. Problem was, the man was paranoid. As soon as he caught wind that I was looking for him, he sent a couple of his goons around to take care of me. That didn’t go so well for them, so he sent a couple more. I’m afraid they didn’t fare much better. That’s when I slipped up. See, I’m not much for killing anyone I don’t have to. You could call it mercy, I suppose, or whatever passes for a conscience among the denizens of hell. I call it stupidity, because the bastard that I spared spilled his story to Varela, who grabbed a handful of his most trusted men – not to mention enough firepower to topple your average government – and disappeared into the jungle. Not a bad play, I’ll admit. Hell, the first day or so, I even thought it was kinda cute. But as the hours wore on, and the rain continued unabated, the whole affair sort of lost its shine.

Now it’d been four days since I left Cartagena – four grueling days of tracking Varela and his men through blistering heat and near-constant downpours, without so much a moment to eat or sleep or even catch my breath. Varela’s men were well-trained and familiar with the terrain, but they were also laden with gear and would no doubt stop to rest, so I was certain I could catch them. Still, October is Colombia’s rainy season, and during that rainy season, there’s not a wetter place on Earth. All I wanted was to turn around – to find some nice, secluded spot on the beach and watch the waves roll in off the Caribbean through the bottom of a bottle of beer. Which is exactly what I intended to do, just as soon as Varela was dead.

Woody ropes of liana hung low over the forest floor – clawing, scratching, winding themselves around my weary limbs as though they might at any moment retreat with me into the canopy, the rare unwary traveler too delicious a morsel to pass up. It was ridiculous to think, I know, but even the plant-life in the Amazon has a vaguely predatory air – from the strangler figs that choke the life from the mighty kapok trees, to the thick mat of green moss that blankets every surface, always probing, searching, feeding. By the light of day, the jungle wasn’t so bad. But as the last gray traces of sun dwindled in the western sky and the brush around me came alive with the rustling of unseen beasts, panic set in. My heart fluttered. My spine crawled. The bitter tang of adrenaline prickled on my tongue. My lips moved in silent prayer – a useless habit – and I quickened my pace, pressing onward through the darkness.

I never even saw the embankment coming.

One moment, I was slashing through the underbrush, the jungle pressing in against me, and the next, there was just a queasy, terrifying nothing. It was like scaling a flight of stairs in the dark only to realize there’s one fewer than you remembered, except in this case, my lead foot never hit ground.

I pitched forward. My arms pinwheeled, and my blade clattered to the forest floor, forgotten. I fell for what seemed like forever. Then I slammed into the side of the embankment so hard it knocked the wind out of me, and snapped my jaw shut on my tongue. My mouth filled with blood. My lungs seared as they begged for breath that wouldn’t come.

And still, I wasn’t done falling.

I tumbled down the steep, muddy slope, clawing frantically at every fern and rain-slick root, but it wasn’t any use. I tried to dig in my heels, but one of them caught on something hard, and instead of stopping I hinged forward, somersaulting. End over end I bounced, every inch of my borrowed frame erupting in white-hot pain.

Then, suddenly, all was dark and still and quiet. I was lying face-down in two feet of muddy water, its vegetal stink invading my nose, my mouth, my very pores. Arms shaking, I pushed myself upward, gasping as my face cleared the surface of the muck.

I was at the edge of a broad, shallow stream, which blurbled a delicate melody as it passed along its rocky bed. Behind me, the embankment jutted skyward maybe thirty feet, more cliff-face than hill. From the dense bramble of exposed roots and the relative lack of greenery, my guess is it was the result of a mudslide, and a recent one at that. Not that it mattered much to me either way. I mean, a fall’s a fall – and besides, I was way more interested in the fire.

It couldn’t have been more than fifty yards downstream, nestled in a rocky crook on the far bank of the riverbed. The fire itself was lined with river rocks, and a makeshift spit of branches stretched across it, upon which roasted a goodly hunk of meat. Whoever’d chosen the spot knew what they were doing – the canopy was heavy there, providing shelter from the rain, and the stream supplied ample drinking water; the natural depression of the land hid the fire from view of anyone passing by above. Were it not for my fall, I would’ve walked right on past and never been the wiser. I allowed myself a smile as I pondered my sudden turn of fortune.

Though it had been days since I’d last eaten, and the aroma of cooking meat had set my mouth watering, I forced myself to hold my ground, counting to one hundred as I listened for any indication that Varela’s men had seen me. I heard nothing but the growling of my stomach, and there was no sentry in sight. Given what I knew of Varela, the lack of perimeter guards was surprising, but maybe he believed the jungle to be protection enough from me. He had no idea how wrong he was.

I approached the stream at a crouch, suddenly grateful for the deepening twilight and the thin layer of mud that together served to obscure my approach. Water leeched into my boots as I crossed to the far bank, mindful all the while for any whisper of movement that might indicate snake. With Varela finally within my grasp, the last thing I needed was to tangle with a deadly coral, or have this meat-suit squeezed to death by an anaconda. I might not be too fond of this job of mine, but I’d still rather be predator than prey.

Twenty yards out, I knew that something was wrong. There was no idle chatter, no rustle of fabric – no sound at all from Varela’s camp, save for a low, persistent buzzing, like a dentist’s distant drill. From behind a massive kapok trunk, I hazarded a glance. Several men, their backs to me, were silhouetted by the fire, but all were still as death. I watched them for a moment, wondering if this was perhaps some kind of trap – a dummy camp set up to lure me in. Then I realized where the buzzing was coming from, and I knew this was no trap.

I stepped clear of my hiding place and wandered into the camp. The buzzing here was deafening, and up close its source was clear. The entire place was swarming with insects – millions of them – all fighting for their share of the feast laid out before them. The corpses of Varela’s men teemed with them – from tiny flies and gnats to massive, iridescent beetles the likes of which I’d never seen, all attracted by the scent of spilled blood and dead flesh, still too faint for my meat-suit’s nose to recognize. I counted seven men around the fire. Five of them were riddled with bullet-holes, and abandoned among them was a Kalashnikov assault rifle, its action open, its clip spent. Each of the dead men carried a Kalashnikov of their own, strapped across their backs as if they were at ease when they’d been attacked.

By the look of the other two, I’d say those first five got off light.

The first of them lay face-down a few feet from the fire. His rifle lay beneath him, as if he had been holding it at ready when he was attacked. No doubt this was the sentry I’d been listening for. It looked to me like he’d come running to help his buddies when the shooting started. An admirable reaction, to be sure, but apparently not the smartest play. I rolled him over with the toe of my boot. His neck flopped like a wet noodle, and his head lolled to one side. A crushing blow from a rectangular something-or-other had caved in his nose and made tartare of his face – all meat and teeth and glistening bone. A glance at the abandoned Kalashnikov confirmed the gunstock was to blame; it was caked with blood and bits of flesh. Whether the blow had been enough to snap his neck, or his assailant had done it afterward for good measure, I couldn’t say.

“What the fuck happened here?” I asked of no one in particular. For a moment, I thought I might just get an answer – the sentry’s ruined lips parted and emitted a faint, rustling whisper. Then a cockroach the size of my fist crawled out of his mouth, antennae twitching in the still night air. I eyed it for a moment, but if it knew what went down, it sure as hell wasn’t talking.

The last of the bodies lay spread-eagle on the forest floor. His hands and feet were staked to the ground with knives no doubt scavenged from the belts of his dead companions. His shirt lay open at his sides, exposing his mutilated chest, now crawling with all manner of bugs. Unlike the sentry, his face had been spared, though I suspect that was more for my benefit than for his. His eyes were clouded and glassy, and his features were twisted into a rictus of pain, but still, there was no mistaking that face.

Varela.

I crouched beside him and lay a hand atop his bloodied chest. Insects scampered across the back of my hand and crawled up my sleeve. I ignored them, instead closing my eyes and extending my consciousness – probing, searching. But it was no use. There was nothing left to find.

Varela’s soul was gone.

My meat-suit’s heart thudded in its chest as the realization hit. Now, I don’t know how the white-hats play it, but the souls of the damned don’t just up and leave on their own. That means whoever attacked these men wasn’t human – as far as I knew, there wasn’t a man alive who had the means to steal a soul. That meant Collector.

Problem is, we Collectors ain’t exactly the Three Musketeers. All for one and one for all sounds all well and good, but hell doesn’t work that way. Varela’s soul was my responsibility – no exceptions, no excuses – which meant if I wasn’t the one to bring him in, then I had failed in my mission. And believe me when I tell you, my employers don’t take kindly to failure.

I took a calming breath, and willed my racing heart to slow. The last thing I needed now was to freak. I forced myself to look over the scene, certain there was something I had missed.

Turns out, I was right.

It’s embarrassing, really, because in retrospect, it was so damn obvious. But when I’d first approached the camp, I had no reason to assume Collector. I just figured one of Varela’s competitors had beaten me to the punch, in which case Varela’s massive chest-wound made sense – I mean, he had to die of something. But when you take a soul, the body dies. So, then: why the bloodied chest?

I retreated to the fire, toppling the spit and sending the hunk of now-charred meat into the flames. For the first time, I realized how recently this must’ve all gone down – the meat, though burned, had yet to cook off the spit, and though the air was hot and thick with moisture, the bodies weren’t bloated, and showed no signs of rigor. Whoever’d done this had beaten me by a matter of minutes. Of course, that knowledge didn’t help me much – a few minutes was plenty of time for any Collector worth his salt to disappear. I pushed aside all thought of pursuit, instead focusing on my immediate task. I shoved one of the support branches from the spit into the embers until it caught. Then I returned to Varela’s body, torch in hand.

The flame danced in the sudden breeze as I swung the branch at the writhing mass of bugs that blanketed Varela’s chest. Reluctantly, they parted, frightened by the fire but unwilling to relinquish their blood meal. As they shifted, I caught a glimpse of something odd – letters, three inches high, carved into the dead man’s flesh.

I lost my patience with the flame and dropped to my knees, scattering the remaining insects with a sweep of my arm. Beneath them was a message, ragged and crusted brown with drying blood:

SAM –

WE NEED TO TALK.

YOU KNOW WHERE.

-D

That bastard, I thought. I should’ve known.

I must’ve spent a half an hour sitting there, marveling at the presumption, the sheer arrogance that pervaded every grisly slice. Eventually, though, I rose and left the camp behind, plunging once more into the jungle – this time heading south.

Toward Bogotá.

Toward Danny.

***

The Wrong Goodbye will be published on September 25th in the US and October 4th in the UK and the Rest of the World.

The first novel in the series, Dead Harvest, is out now from Angry Robot Books in paperback and eBook formats, as well as through Angry Robot’s subscription service.

Holm-DeadHarvest

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